6 May, 2015

From little acorns

England, 1884. Queen Victoria celebrated 47 years on the throne. William Gladstone was prime minister. Farm workers were given the vote for the first time. The wonderfully innovative paper-strip photographic film was patented.

And in Leeds, the seeds were sown for what was to become a mighty oak of British, and ultimately international, retailing.

Michael Marks had arrived in England around two years earlier, having fled Jewish persecution in his native Belarus, then part of Russian Poland. He could not speak English, had few friends and little money. But while the cards were seemingly stacked against him, he had a flair for business and an uncanny understanding of what customers wanted.



Marks started off as a pedlar, hawking his wares around the towns and villages of west Yorkshire, but by 1884 he had opened a stall in Kirkgate Market, Leeds. The rest, as they say, is history.

A novel idea at the time, Marks displayed all his goods with clearly priced labels. But he quickly realised what everyday Yorkshire folk could afford to pay, so he shunned the more expensive items and came up with the slogan ‘Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny’. Money went a long way in those days: it was said that ‘a man could get drunk for a penny and dead drunk for tuppence’!

His penny price slogan was a winner and business quickly grew, with stalls opening in other market towns. But as customers took to his retail proposition in a big way, Marks’ reputation as a caring employer also began to emerge. Many of his stalls employed women and Marks put up wooden platforms for them to stand on in the market halls so their feet wouldn’t get cold! Unusually for an employer at the time, Marks also shared food and gave his staff Christmas presents.



Business thrived so much that Marks decided to look for a partner to help him manage it. His first choice was Isaac Dewhurst who had loaned him his original start-up costs. But Dewhurst turned him down, a decision he must have regretted in the years to come, instead suggesting his senior cashier, Tom Spencer, who readily agreed.

Spencer invested £300 into Marks’ enterprise (worth over £27,000 in today’s money) in exchange for a 50% share (this investment had grown to £1,094 by 1898 – almost £100,000 today). And so, on 28 September 1894, a decade after Michael Marks had opened his Kirkgate Market stall, the Marks & Spencer name first appeared in the annals of British retailing.

In many ways, Michael Marks and Tom Spencer were like chalk and cheese. For a start, there were their different backgrounds. Marks, of course, was a Jewish immigrant. Spencer was a practical, Yorkshireman who spoke as he found. He was well-built, a somewhat loud and larger-than-life character in contrast to Marks’ quieter disposition. But the two of them hit it off, Spencer’s organisational capabilities and eye for the finer details of retail providing the perfect foil for Marks’ merchandising skills and natural affability that made him a ‘people person’.



The new Marks & Spencer stores were called Penny Bazaars, staying true to Marks’ original merchandising principle. Food items, such as flour spices and confectionary, were particularly popular. Interestingly, customers arriving at the Penny Bazars were met with the sign ‘Admission Free’. We think nothing today of wandering into a shop, having a look round and leaving without buying anything. But back in the 1890s it was thought important to let customers know they could browse with no compulsion to buy anything. Once again, employee welfare was front of mind and assistants were provided with gas rings on which to heat their lunches.

By 1900, Marks and Spencer had grown to include 36 Penny Bazaars and 12 high street stores.

But the story of this retail icon was only just unfolding…

Inside M&S