18 April, 2018


For 134 years, M&S has been a part of everyday life – reflecting it, responding to it, shaping it. We’ve touched generations across the decades, reinventing ourselves as times have changed, but remaining true to the core values that still stand us in good stead today.

So where did it all begin? In 1882, Michael Marks arrived in England, fleeing Jewish persecution in his native Belarus. He couldn’t speak English, hardly had two pennies to rub together, but knew what customers wanted. Two years later, he opened a market stall in Kirkgate Market, Leeds. Realising that everyday Yorkshire folk couldn’t afford expensive goods, he traded under the slogan ‘Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny’.

It was a winner, business boomed and stalls opened in other market towns. Marks’ reputation as a caring employer emerged, too. Many stalls employed women and Marks put up wooden platforms to stand on in market halls so their feet didn’t get cold.

And then ‘M’ met ‘S’. Marks needed a partner to help manage the thriving business. He and Tom Spencer were like chalk and cheese, a Jewish immigrant and a plain-speaking Yorkshireman, but they hit it off. The Marks & Spencer name first appeared in 1894 and stores were called Penny Bazaars, staying true to Marks’ merchandising principles. An ‘Admission Free’ sign let customers know they could browse without compulsion to buy – times were different then! Employee welfare was still front of mind as gas rings were provided for assistants to heat their lunches.

As the 20th century turned, we continued to grow and innovate. Most shops kept their stock behind counters, but we displayed everything on trays for customers to inspect. In the scarcities of World War One, we sold the buttons, needles and threads so people could mend their clothes. Austerity continued after the war and we started to sell more of life’s essentials such as underwear… including the bra, our most iconic product. War broke out again in 1939 and, low on goods and with stores under enemy fire, we learned to offer quality in any circumstances.

Post-war, people were ready for a bit of glamour and we provided it with a daring style of dress that became known as the New Look. The 1960s weren’t just about miniskirts and The Beatles, but chickens – uniquely chilled (instead of frozen) chickens that stayed at 4° all the way to our shop counters. By the ‘70s, lifestyles were changing, and more woman were going out to work, so we introduced good, quality nutritious convenience foods and exotic ranges that reflected the taste for foreign travel. In the following decades, competition became ever fiercer and we responded with innovations like food technology.

And so to today. We’re proud of our past, but we know we cannot live in it. Online shopping has grabbed customers and we’ve become a multi-channel retailer. The world has moved on a long way since Kirkgate Market and we have developed a strong international presence. Priorities have changed too and – covering everything from our retail operations to the way we manage our properties – Plan A is our statement of intent to become the world’s most sustainable major retailer.

But some things never change. Like the way we care about our employees and their careers, and the way we put customers at the heart of everything we do. We aim to make every moment special for everyone. It’s something we think Michael Marks would have approved of.

Inside M&S