What 130 years of M&S history can teach us about innovation

In this guest post, Hannah Jenkinson, an Archivist at the Marks & Spencer Company Archive, tells us the story of Innovation: the Key to Business Success – a course from the University of Leeds, developed in association with M&S. It features many market-leading examples of innovation from the retailer’s 130 year history – from chilled chickens to crimplene cardigans – and explores the lessons that all businesses can learn from them.

In this guest post, Hannah Jenkinson, an Archivist at the Marks & Spencer Company Archive, tells us the story of Innovation: the Key to Business Success – a course from the University of Leeds, developed in association with M&S. It features many market-leading examples of innovation from the retailer’s 130 year history – from chilled chickens to crimplene cardigans – and explores the lessons that all businesses can learn from them.

A crimplene advert from the M&S Company Archive.

The Marks & Spencer Company Archive contains over 70,000 items documenting the history of M&S, from Michael Marks’ first Penny Bazaar in Leeds in 1884 to the present day. Alongside the business papers and reports you might expect, the collection also includes merchandise, garments, packaging, magazines, photographs, films and adverts.

Opening up the archive

In 2012, the archive moved to a new location on the campus of the University of Leeds, allowing the education community to access it for the first time. In 2013 we were asked to think of examples of M&S innovations, to include in this course exploring how innovation happens and why it’s crucial to business success.

As a pioneer in food and textile technology over the last 130 years, we’ve always used scientific developments to create products that have changed the daily lives of our customers, so it was difficult to choose just two M&S innovations to include. But we opted for two that we believe had an enduring impact on the retail industry.

Hatching the chilled chicken

M&S was the first food retailer to appoint a Technical Executive and Chief Chemist to the Food Division, recruiting Nathan Goldenberg in 1948. Goldenberg overhauled the food department and began introducing many of the food products that we know and love today.

One key development was the ‘cold chain distribution’ that M&S pioneered in 1960. This brought in the availability of chilled, rather than frozen or pre-cooked poultry, for the first time in food retail.

A magazine from the M&S Company Archive.

The archive collection documents the pioneering ‘cold chain’ in research papers, magazines, films and photographs. Used in Week 2 of the course, these articles highlight the revolutionary nature of this innovation, the impact it had on our business at the time, and its resounding effect on the way we shop decades later.

In today’s digital age the chance to buy a fresh, unfrozen chicken may not seem that mind-blowing, but in the early 1960s it was just as revolutionary as its contemporaries, like rock ‘n’ roll and miniskirts.

Spinning man-made yarns

In 1934, M&S was the first British retailer to set up its own research laboratory to pioneer new fabrics. Thanks to this advanced textile technology laboratory and close relationships with suppliers, we’ve always been at the forefront of the development of radical, easy-care synthetic fibres.

Week 1 of the course uses laboratory records, photographs of our technologists at work and marketing materials for the wonder fabrics as they evolved, to showcase the incremental innovations that M&S made in this area from the 1950s to the present day.

A magazine extract from the M&S Company Archive.

Such innovations have transformed the high street, bringing our customers soft new textures, silky finishes and bright patterns at an affordable price. They’ve also brought practical benefits, making all of our lives easier today.

For instance, in the early 1960s, M&S was the first retailer to launch seam-free, ladder resistant stockings, solving a problem that had been bugging ladies for years. And as technology evolved, we also introduced wool garments that could be machine-washed and new finishes for cotton, which mean clothes now need minimal ironing.

Developing the new course

The archive’s collaboration in the development of the course has been a rewarding experience. Being involved in such a significant project has helped to raise the profile of the archive not only across the University of Leeds, but also within the business and education communities.

Furthermore, reflecting the company’s unique approach to innovation – and sharing it with a large, diverse audience, who are able to engage and learn from the collection in an equally innovative and exciting way – is something that we’re very proud of.

What do you think you think is the world’s greatest innovation? Have a watch of this video, then let us know in the comments.

Learn more about innovation – Join Innovation: the Key to Business Success today. 

 

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Comments (7)

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  • Ntsiuoa

    hi everyone this is my first time studying online and I’m super excited

  • Natala

    It’s the first time I hear, that it was M&S to develop the cpld chain distribution. It’s great!

  • alan watt

    I was a warehouse boy in the Dundee store from 1962-64 before going on to a college education. The company taught me a lot about quality and high standards and we were proud of the St Michael brand which sadly went, as did the Norwich counters. Marcus Sieff came to our store in 1963 and we all stood to attention making sure the counter displays were just right.
    He scattered the mens jumpers on the front end of the counter, saying it was good to see items being rumpled as it meant the customers were looking at the goods! Lesson learnt!! I still visit the Dundee store but it looks so cluttered after the pristine look of the Norwich countering. The boss used to stand at the fron of the store to check everything was in line – even the chrome price stands. Shirts (T11A) were 21/- top quality cotton poplin then Bri-nylon came in 467 & 468 nd sold for 19/11. I fancied the girl on the shirt counter and woud try to meet up with her in the stockroom – now the upper floor in the store. Such are my memories of a happy 2 years -and you got a bonus from Simon Marks at Christmas – no M&S sparkle then. Changed days

  • Yasmin

    Is this course being run again? Missed it.

  • Natalie

    I love old classic pictures they make me smile. The history of M&S still continues to grow today passionately creating new ideas as well as bringing back looks from the past with magic & spark. It is great to see M&S expand from once a small business to a world recognised company that you love going back to shop for whatever tickles your fancy. AMAZING!!

  • Margarita

    I like the combination between theory and praxis. The 130 years implemented and proven experience of M&S would contribute much for understanding the processes and how to deal with. For me this course it’s an investment in knowledge and if M&S decides in the future to expand their business in Bulgaria this training would give me competitive advantage by knowing the key points how M&S improved their business outcomes through innovative approaches.

  • fredrick oghenekaro

    i love M&S innovative ideas and make up