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Missing the Marks? The rise, fall and rise of M&S in Belgium

15:28 15/11/2012

December 22, 2001. To a lot of people in Belgium, the date still lives in infamy as the day that the Marks & Spencer store on Brussels’ Rue Neuve closed for good. From homesick British expats to chronic anglophiles, curry lovers to cardigan-wearers, everybody seemed to love the idea of Marks’n’Sparks in the middle of the capital.

Everybody, that is, except for one Belgian: M&S’s then CEO, Luc Vandevelde, who decided and oversaw the closure of all overseas outlets. The announcement felt like a cold shower to the many regulars (the Rue Neuve store, opened in 1975, was mainland Europe’s second M&S after the one on Paris’s Boulevard Haussman) who, in the last few weeks of 2001, stocked up on British food as if a nuclear war was imminent.

When the news came a few weeks ago that Marks & Spencer would launch a dedicated website for the Belgian market on November 19, many rejoiced at the prospect of buying quality clothing and gourmet foodstuffs, while hoping that the reopening of a Brussels store was only round the corner.

The questions below were submitted to Marks & Spencer’s press office, who sent their replies (“to be attributed to ‘a Marks & Spencer spokesman’”) via a Belgian PR company.

Did the recent Facebook campaign – over 20,000 signatures – for an M&S store to reopen in the centre of Brussels play a part in the decision to create the Belgian website?

Our online expansion to a Belgian website supports our ambition to transform M&S into a leading international, multi-channel retailer and comes amid a growing demand for British fashion on the continent. This is in line with the plans we laid out earlier this year to have a transactional website in the 10 international markets by the end of the year. Belgium is already one of the top-performing markets for our international delivery service on www.marksandspencer.com, so it’s right that we return to the Belgian markets through an online capability. This localised offer will provide national reach, giving us the flexibility to grow our business in Belgium and take customer engagement to another level. 

Is the website going to serve as a dummy run for a proper shop?

While we always look at new opportunities we have no immediate plans to open stores in Belgium. 

While British expats associate M&S with quality clothing, to non-Brits it is synonymous with crisps, egg sandwiches and crumpets. Will food be available?

We will not be offering food via our Belgian website. We don’t offer food online in any territory and have no plans to do so. 

Will promotional campaigns and offers taking place in the UK apply to the Belgian website too?

We’ve created a bespoke website for Belgium which is fully localised for our customers in the market – retailing in euros, with a choice of local languages (French, Dutch and English) and popular payment and delivery options. Ahead of the launch, customers can sign up to the M&S newsletter at www.marksandspencer.be to receive a discount of 20 percent off their first purchase. While we don’t comment or speculate on future marketing campaigns, deals and offers, we can certainly keep you up to date with these details when the website goes live. 

Cue the sound of thousands of hearts sinking. It probably makes perfect business sense for Marks & Spencer not to offer the Belgian market the full whammy of the UK catalogue. Besides, it’s restricted by EU regulations governing the sale of food online.

So more fool us for being too naive – or greedy. In the meantime, let’s see what the website has to offer. As for the stilton, the prawn korma for one and the mint sauce, well there’s always the Eurostar. The St Pancras terminal boasts two particularly convenient branches of… Marks & Spencer.

Written by PM Doutreligne