Last week, on the way back from a meeting, I nipped into one of the Glasgow city centre branches of Marks & Spencer. When you need to acquire underwear, slippers, a swimming costume and a loaf of bread in a hurry, there really are few contenders for your business. I really like a lot of Marks & Spencer. I like its food. I love that it's there in the motorway services, a beacon of fresh deliciousness in a sea of junk. I like its tights and underwear. It sells excellent greetings cards and cute kids clothes. But it's a ragtag mess of great and puzzling.
The big, poorly dressed elephants in the room are M&S's women's fashion - one of the core bits of its business - and how all the bits of the company hang together. The disconnect between the endless rows of frumpy skirts and amazing food is strange. It's like having a Waitrose inside a branch of Bon Marche.
There are bits of its clothing that elevate out of the merely functional. There are gems to be found. But it's entirely random whether you'll actually find anything. I always love their ads, but the reality generally disappoints.
In a shop that's designed to appeal to everyone, it's easy to make it hard for one person to find what they need. Clothes shopping should feel inspirational, not like rummaging through a jumble sale.
What made the most recent visit all the more troubling was the in-store soundtrack. In the space of a few minutes, the store played: Lionel Ritchie 'My Destiny', Bryan Adams 'Have you really ever loved a woman' and something that Shazam told me was by Del Amitri. It was like bad local radio - a soundtrack that no brand surely would ever choose. One of these songs would have been surprising. But clearly, we were enduring an unbelievably bad album of soft rock anthems of the 80s and 90s.
I tweeted M&S to express my confusion. And just to underline the points made there - the staff were lovely. I got what I went in for. The shop was as M&S always is - a mixture of great and depressing. But I didn't feel too inclined or inspired to browse or buy more. I was in there for a reason, and I didn't deviate from it. It really felt like I wasn't supposed to be there.
Music feels like something that shouldn't be that important for a brand, but it really is. It's one element of a space a brand controls, and as important (or more so) than good lighting, decent changing rooms and nice staff. Awful music will drive customers out of a shop before they even reach those things.
(Shopping with my dad before Christmas, we passed a store aimed very much at teens and 20-somethings, dance music blaring out the door. He tutted and said he would never go in there. I explained that was rather the point - loud music like that was designed to keep disapproving 50-somethings out of the shop.)
What music would be more suitable for M&S? Well, as we're talking about the women's department, it's not hard to think of amazing female singers alone from all generations with music that makes you feel upbeat and interested. Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Adela, Laura Marling, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, Bat for Lashes, Caitlin Rose. But it doesn't have to be women singers - that's just to make a point. M&S repeatedly shows in its advertising that it wants to appeal to all women. The music needs to back this up, and whatever it is needs to fit with what the brand wants to be.
Sadly, on the day I visited, I think M&S still wanted to be a middle aged aunt.