If there’s one fashion trend that has been taking the world by storm in recent years, it’s athleisure – and it could all be down to millennials’ increased buying power and influence.
Marks & Spencer, a retailer that has traditionally been recognised as catering more towards a middle-aged group of shoppers, just recently embraced athleisure by introducing its own range Goodmove, offering 150 different pieces of clothing and accessories.
In recent years, M&S’s clothing sales have been on a slippery slope. So its new athleisure range raises the question: has it dipped into market to revive its clothing sales; or to widen its offering?
“Today, athleisure is an important wardrobe staple for many of our customers so we wanted to revitalise our offering to ensure we’re offering them relevant and inspiring products,” M&S’s Goodmove buyer Emma Salmon told Retail Gazette.
The heritage retailer suffered a rollercoaster of a year in 2019, from being booted out of the FTSE 100 for the first time since the index was introduced, to having its finance chief and clothing & home supply chain director both resign in the same week in September.
To worsen matters, M&S reported a “disappointing” Christmas trading period in its most recent update, with sales in its clothing and home division falling 2.7 per cent to £1.1 billion in the three months to the end of December.
Last month, M&S was reportedly looking to shrink flagship stores via a review of 20 of its biggest stores as part of its turnaround strategy.
Despite the gloomy news, the retailer pushed ahead with its Goodmove range, but does M&S really recognise its market?
The athleisure sector as a whole is estimated to be worth around £3 billion in the UK. GlobalData predicts it would grow by 20.9 per cent by 2023 to reach £6.7 billion.
Siobhan Rooney, a fashion audience analyst at audience intelligence consultancy EntSight, said her data suggests that athleisure isn’t the best fit for M&S’ current audience.
“Older consumers are less likely to go to the gym regularly, run or attend exercise classes like yoga – the kind of things activewear is designed for – so they probably won’t be seeking out this clothing,” she said.
“It certainly seems that M&S wants to boost its appeal among millennials.
“This will be challenging, as young people are already less likely than the average UK consumer to shop in the store.”
In the past year, retailers that have commonly marketed towards the older generation, such as Bonmarche and LK Bennett, have declined in business. Both retailers in particular have fallen into administration, and the fear of not keeping up with consumers’ changing attitudes may be daunting on M&S.
Rooney added: “There are so many established athleisure brands engaging with this audience successfully.
“Can M&S convince young people to buy its leggings above those from Nike? If they can afford Nike’s prices, probably not.”
Despite this, Salmon highlighted that M&S was “changing” and “focused on delivering great quality products”.
Nottingham Business School retail research associate Nelson Blackley said activewear has become “a staple in today’s wardrobe” and the demand for sports gear will continue to grow.
In fact, GlobalData found last year that 20 per cent of Brits purchased sports clothing as fashion rather than to exercise in.
Many retailers have already embraced the athleisure market. Luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter launched a separate site dedicated to athletiwear called Net-a-Sporter, while upmarket department store Selfridges launched a Body Studio, a floor dedicated to athleisure.
“We wanted to revitalise our offering to ensure we’re offering relevant & inspiring products”
Celebrities have also played a role in pushing sales of sportswear with Kanye West’s Yeezy collection boosting Adidas sales and Beyonce’s Ivy Park supporting Topshop sales back when the company traded with Arcadia.
M&S’s Goodmove collection doesn’t feature a famous face. Instead, it relies on advertising and millennials’ spending power and influence to break into the athleisure market.
Gary Wilson, a senior ecommerce consultant at Wunderman Thompson Commerce, suggested that M&S was “late to the game” as much of its competition has already started establishing own-brand ranges.
“Next recently pipped M&S to the post by launching its athleisure brand in collaboration with TV celebrity Emma Willis just before the launch of Goodmove,” he said.
“M&S will have bigger issues to address and with the imminent arrival of Richard Price as its new clothing and home managing director, athleisure will not be the sole answer to all its current problems – though getting it right will certainly help.”
Meanwhile, James Withey, head of strategy at brand agency FutureBrand, told Retail Gazette that M&S needn’t worry about competition.
“M&S is certainly late to the game in tapping into athleisure – the aforementioned Ivy Park got there years ago,” he said.
“This isn’t necessarily an issue for them, in the sense that it’s not really there for the cutting edge.
“It’s there to take what’s proven to work to new consumers who haven’t discovered it yet.
“And M&S has a really good track record in clothing and footwear that bring strong functional benefits, from water-resistant outerwear to sports bras.
“When you think about it like that, it’s a perfectly sensible move.”
Certainly, M&S is known for its “successful sports bra offering” where it’s currently the market leader – as Salmon suggests – and a peak in sales could provide hope for the embattled retailer.
But just how easy would this be to sustain?
Salmon said that by launching Goodmove, M&S’ product offering increased by 75 per cent, and is “helping customers see M&S as an easy place to shop for activewear”.
M&S has come a long way in recent times to remain relevant, but so far this has been manifested in its food division whether it’s by launching a “game-changing” vegan range, plastic-free fruit and vegetable packaging, or a halal meat range.
With Goodmove, M&S may well be targeting the more functional side of younger people’s wardrobes and recruiting them into the brand in that way. But beyond that, the real opportunity for M&S is to reconnect with its older core audience and help them believe once again that it’s a relevant destination for them.