With a reputation for good quality, if occasionally slightly dull, merchandise, and as the grocer to Britain’s middle classes (alongside Waitrose), it’s perhaps a little surprising to find out that solid, dependable Marks & Spencer started out life as the 19th-century equivalent of a pound shop in the north of England.
Michael Marks was a refugee from eastern Europe. Originally from Slonim in Belarus, he made his way to Leeds, where he set up a stall in Kirkgate Market.
With business going well, he took on a partner, Tom Spencer, who invested £300 into the business. And on 28 September 1894, the first “Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar” was born. The stall sold household goods and haberdashery, and, as the name suggested, everything cost-one penny.
The business expanded quickly, so that by 1900, Marks & Spencer boasted 36 market stalls and 12 high-street shops.
In the 1920s, M&S changed direction to begin selling clothes, and built up a formidable reputation for selling quality pants and bras. It also changed its pricing policy – goods could now cost anything up to five shillings.
Marks & Spencer built a business selling goods that were exclusively from British suppliers. The brand, “St Michael” was named in honour of its founder, Michael Marks. However, commercial pressures meant that by the 1990s, the British-only policy was quietly abandoned.
The company continued to expand right up until the end of the 20th century. Profits peaked in 1997/98. But it has struggled to keep pace with both quickly changing fashions and the rise of nimbler competition. It remains a retail bellwether and constituent of the FTSE 100, with a market capitalisation of £8bn.