Does a 'Core' Customer really exist?

Marks and Spencer has recently been carrying out a strategic review of its operations, led by its new Chief Executive Steve Rowe. In a presentation he made last week, he outlined plans to revive M&S, in particular the fashion side of the business which has suffered a 2.9% fall in sales over the past 12 months, with a loss of £200 million in clothing sales over the last three years.

One of the main parts of his new strategy is to "cherish and celebrate Mrs M&S" (his words) who he sees as the Company's most loyal core customer.

Steve Rowe says his 'core' customer is a female aged over 50 who shops on average 18 times a year with Marks and Spencer. These are the people he wants to focus his strategy on.

But I wonder if he is making a mistake.

Approximately 32 million people shop at M&S every year and 22% of them are aged under 35. The majority of these people are buying food, not clothes.

And herein lies the problem. If you walk into any M&S Food Hall (as I do several times a week) the typical customer looks to be aged around 25 to 45 with a fairly balanced gender mix. They are often dressed in business suits, looking like they are on their way home from a hard day in the office. Are these people being enticed to look at the clothes range after they have purchased their yuppy micro-dinners? Probably not.

This is a long way from Rowe's vision of his 'core' customer being a genteel lady in her fifties looking to buy an under-wired bra. Ever since the day in 1986 when Margaret Thatcher admitted buying her underwear from M&S, the company has been wrongly tarnished with the posh lady brush.

Fundamentally, I would question whether your 'core' customer of the past should necessarily be the customer you want to attract in the future. Or more importantly, does a 'core' customer really even exist in today's crazily diversified and fragmented retail environment. Every customer is different. Everyone is an individual. The world has changed and the average posh middle-aged lady might prefer to get her knickers from Ann Summers these days. Really.

From a marketing perspective, it is very 'old school' to lump all your customers together into one homogeneous group and say that these are the people you are going to target. I somehow think that Steve Rowe is adopting a marketing approach that is no longer relevant for the 21st Century.

Then again - all the droves of former BHS shoppers will need somewhere else to go. So there might be some hope for M&S yet!

Moral of this story: Your customers should be treated as individuals, not just an homogeneous group.