September 7, 2012, 10:50 AM

Marks & Spencer spends $400 million on web projects

The U.K. chain tests free Wi-Fi in stores and giving staff iPads.

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The U.K.'s e-commerce market is the biggest in Europe. British shoppers spent 34.9 billion pounds ($54.2 billion) online in the first half of the year, up 12.58% from 31.0 billion pounds ($48.1 billion) in the first six months of 2011, the IMRG Capgemini e-Retail Sales Index finds. 

To target this expanding market that is growing despite the recession occuring throughout Europe, M&S is spending $400 million on web projects. It’s relaunching its e-retail site, offering Wi-Fi in stores and outfitting store staff with iPads.

The new site, set to launch in 2014, is costing the retailer 150 million pounds ($238 million), Laura Wade-Gery, executive director of multi-channel e-commerce at M&S, tells Internet Retailer. SapientNitro, a provider of online marketing and technology services, is developing the new M&S site, a change from the retailer’s current site, which is built on Amazon.com Inc.'s e-commerce platform. 

The site relaunch follows substantial e-commerce and m-commerce growth for the high street retailer. In the financial year ending April 2012, all of M&S’ non-store sales, including web, mobile, phone and catalog sales, reached 559 million pounds ($889 million), up 18% year over year. During that same period, its e-commerce site attracted 3.4 million visitors per week, up 11.2% from a year earlier, and mobile sales alone climbed 275%.  

CEO Marc Bolland says he wants all non-store sales combined to reach 800 million pounds ($1.2 billion) to 1 billion pounds ($1.5 billion) by 2014.

M&S, No. 19 in the Top 400 Europe Guide is extending its online sales push into stores, too. In March, the retailer began offering free customer Wi-Fi in ten participating M&S stores across the U.K. and plans to expand it to more stores if the pilot is successful. 

M&S features throughout its stores QR codes designed to encourage customers to connect and discover more M&S products. Customers can use their smartphones and the store Wi-Fi to scan a QR code with their phone’s camera. That connects customers to web content including the M&S mobile site, to see things like ratings and reviews and get recipe ideas.

After scanning the codes, customers can buy and browse more items available online via their phones, such products from women's apparel line Limited Collection and men's apparel line Autograph. The goal is to help extend the full range of products into smaller M&S stores, Wade-Gery says.

M&S is using The Cloud, a subsidiary of multi-media services company BSkyB for its store Wi-Fi. Store shoppers can go online via any wireless-enabled laptop, tablet or smartphone in all areas of the stores–including its cafes.

“We know customers research online before they buy and we want to help them to continue doing so when they are in our stores,” says Sienne Veit, head of mobile development at M&S. “By integrating QR codes into our decor we hope to make it easier for customers to choose the right products and help us better understand how they use mobile devices in our stores."

In another move to extend the web to stores, sales staff at the ten stores offering Wi-Fi  are also equipped with iPads, Wade-Gery says.

Staff can use the iPads to direct customers to the range of products offered online from the retailer and to help customers order goods online to pick up in stores or have delivered to their homes.

M&S also launched an iPhone app in July, enabling customers to shop and browse the store's full catalog of products

The app features a store locator, QR code reader, a bar code scanner that lets store customers look for alternative sizes and colors not available in the store, and a wish list that lets shoppers tag M&S products and share them via social media.

"We have launched this series of e-commerce initiatives and trials to help us better understand how our customers interact with the latest technologies across both our retail and marketing channels," Wade-Gery says.

M&S is also expanding internationally. It recently launched e-commerce sites for shoppers in Ireland and France, Wade-Gery says.

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