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Marks & Spencer Mary Street general manager, Martin Carpenter
Marks & Spencer Mary Street general manager, Martin Carpenter

It is apt that the first Marks & Spencer opened in the Republic of Ireland, the Mary Street store in Dublin city centre, has now become the first M&S to be profiled by ShelfLife. Gillian Hamill caught up with general manager Martin Carpenter to learn more about what's involved in running the mammoth 23,000 sq ft store with an average footfall of up to 150,000 a week



14 February 2013

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Marks & Spencer,
24 – 29 Mary Street,
Dublin 1
General manager: Martin Carpenter
Size: 23,000 sq ft
Staff: 430

Marks & Spencer Mary Street is abuzz on the day of our ShelfLife interview, having just that morning launched a new beauty bar concept called Your Beauty. It’s a potent reminder of the sheer number of concessions housed across the outlet’s three floors, where general manager Martin Carpenter has been tasked with juggling and successfully keeping all the balls up in the air.


London calling

Fortunately, as you would expect, the manager who hails from Dublin, has a wealth of industry experience to rely on. Originally Carpenter had intended to follow a career in electronic engineering but after working for a small retailer on Grafton Street, says: "I discovered I loved retailing; I loved everything about it." His next stop was London, where he worked for the Chinacraft company as its house manager between 1987 and 1995, selling china and crystal in the prestigious Bond Street and Regent Street areas. From there he moved to Marks and Spencer’s flagship Marble Arch store and continued to gain management experience across several stores in Marks & Spencer’s UK portfolio. 

An opportunity to return home to his native isle arose in 2002 when Carpenter joined the Arcadia Group, where he was responsible for 23 stores across Ireland; 15 Wallis and eight Evans outlets. The following year he joined Principles, where he oversaw and reviewed the business plan strategy across 24 stores. 

After four years with Principles, 2007 marked another important return for the retailer. He once again joined Marks & Spencer; this time coming on board as the general manager of the Liffey Valley store, before moving to his present position as general manager of M&S Mary Street in 2010. A demanding role which sees him provide leadership for seven commercial managers, 32 section managers and 430 staff.

Republic’s flagship store

Carpenter says of his time so far at Mary Street that: "Marble Arch is the flagship store in the whole [M&S portfolio] and this would be the equivalent of that. This is the first store opened in the Republic as well, 34 years ago. We still have 35 people working here who started here 34 years ago so it’s actually incredible. We have a really, really loyal staff and a huge brand loyalty as well in Ireland so I’m very proud of that."

The retailer believes customer loyalty plays a crucial role in M&S Mary Street’s success. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is keen to reference the current horse DNA controversy, whereby Marks and Spencer’s beef burgers were one of only three brands, out of the 27 tested by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), which returned a negative result for any traces of either porcine or equine DNA. "I think with this whole issue surrounding beef, with the positive certainty of what is in our food, we’ve seen a massive spike in our business because people trust our brand," says the retailer. "[Consumers] trust the fact that we have massive checks and balances and they know that our due diligence is absolutely top of the range. Those [implicated] suppliers have nothing to do with M&S." 

Innovation is also a large cog in the wheels that drive this high level of loyalty. "We’ve always had a long tradition in our business of food science," says Carpenter, who highlights the recently launched ‘Fuller For Longer’ range of ready meals as a strong example of this. Many of these meals provide consumers with two of their five-a-day and are all scientifically formulated to make diners feel ‘fuller for longer’. The retailer says of this range and the longer established ‘Count on Us’ meals that "they are the market leaders by far from a healthy eating and a weight watching perspective." 

Alongside the group’s popular Chinese and Italian meals, M&S has delivered further options by providing an Asian twist fusion range and a new Spanish range. In another example of how Marks & Spencer continues to drive innovation onwards, its in-store café lists the calorie content of everything on its menu. In fact, Carpenter points out that the group has an illustrious history when it comes to setting retailing trends as 80 years ago it was actually the first to add sell-by dates onto its food.

Opportunities for Irish suppliers 

"A really important part of our strategy as well [is] that we increase our level of involvement with Irish suppliers," adds the manager. The group currently has a growing list of over 30 Irish suppliers, which includes the likes of Lir, Monaghan Mushrooms, Dunn’s, Linden Foods, Moy Park, Horgan’s, Gensis Crafty and Keelings, to name but a few. "We’ve had real success with local suppliers," says Carpenter. "If you take Monaghan mushrooms, 98% of the mushrooms we supply to around 600 odd stores in our estate in the UK and in the world market, come from an Irish supplier." 

With a focus on NPD and quality contributing so heavily to the brand’s customer loyalty though, it seems fair to ask if Marks & Spencer suffers in the value perception stakes? Carpenter is quick to refute this belief. "Last year we launched a range called Simply. This is an everyday value range, but we make sure it’s really strong in terms of its quality and ingredients. This includes approx. 700 lines and the prices are absolutely comparable with any other big multiple. What we’re saying to the customer is that there’s sometimes that perception out there that we are more expensive but actually when you start looking at our range, there is real value out there.

"I think you need to draw a distinction between value and price as well. Selling something cheaply doesn’t mean that it’s good value. I think value is about price versus quality so I think the beef burger controversy is probably a good example of that." 

Marks & Spencer has also had huge successes with its various deal mechanics such as the popular ‘Dine In’ offer which has been imitated by several competitors. Varying the store’s promotional offering is important, says Carpenter, because deals "can get very stale as well so we try to do a different mechanic; we try and see what works from a customer’s point of view".

Trialling branded lines

In November 2009 the group announced another important strategy; it would begin selling up to 400 branded lines, such as Kellogg’s and Heinz, although M&S later announced that it intended to re-focus on its private label offering. When asked about this trial, Carpenter replies that the group is "always trying to listen to what the customer is saying" and wanted to offer key branded goods in order to create a one-stop shop. "Over the years some of those products have disappeared and we’ve replaced them with our own brand. There was a huge amount of feedback actually that customers wanted our product…We still have branded products but not to the same degree as before."

Another advantage Carpenter believes arose from trialling brands was that when shoppers saw the branded items next to Marks and Spencer’s lines, they realised the latter was considerably cheaper. "That was really, really interesting because again, it’s a perception thing that M&S is [dearer] but actually when they saw the prices, and they compared the value, it actually made a lot of people think."

The in-store bakery within the food hall at Mary Street is another major attraction for the store. "It really stands out as being one of those areas that is just streets ahead of anybody else," says Carpenter.

A dedicated team

He notes that while the bakery’s range is not hugely different to other stores, that its success can be attributed to the fact that: "We have a really passionate team that on a weekly basis will say, ‘did we beat Marble Arch last week’, ‘did we beat so and so last week’. They are really interested in their business and they feel fiercely connected to the bakery."

Last year Marks & Spencer started a trial whereby it opened at 8am instead of 9am and subsequently the majority of the Republic’s 21 stores now open at this earlier time. "The bakery is now open at 8 and everything is freshly baked that day," says Carpenter. "We could not do any of that without the backing of our staff who are really committed."

Indeed customer service is of paramount importance to M&S and Carpenter says it is vital that "our team are knowledgeable throughout the store to be able to sell and give great service". 

Responsible retailing is another aspect of business heavily focused on by the retailer which has launched the Plan A programme to put sustainability at the heart of all its actions. This has resulted in the group winning the World’s Most Responsible Retailer award for the second consecutive year running. Having zero waste, reduced packaging and a lower carbon footprint are key aspects of the plan. 

Excelling in responsible retailing

What’s more, the company offers a dedicated wellbeing site for all staff members, where they can anonymously ask about wellbeing issues and a team of experts will reply with sound advice. Carpenter and other members of the team have also taken part in several strenuous cycling challenges to raise funds for the group’s partner charity, the Marie Keating Foundation, for which it has already raised over €1 million. The store is involved in several other initiatives such as the ‘Ready to Work’ programme which supports homeless people in finding jobs. Six people have now secured full-time jobs at Mary Street as a result of the scheme. Every staff member also has a ‘Charity Day’ where instead of coming into work they can spend their day however they choose, providing they are helping a charity.  

These initiatives appear to be representative not just of the broader company ethos but also the forward-thinking mentality that abounds within the Mary Street store. As its general manager notes: "I think Mary Street, because it’s our first store in Ireland, because it’s the centre of our business in Ireland, we do try and be leaders and in that sense, you always have to be the best and make sure that you try and have something new and get it right first time."



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