Sunday 4 August 2013

An Open Letter to Marc Bolland, CEO of Marks & Spencers plc

Dear Mr Bolland

Things have not been easy for M&S in recent years, and you have quite a job on your hands turning the fortunes of the company round. I wish you well.

M&S is a great brand, but perhaps the brand is part of your problem as well. Woolworths was a great brand once too; everyone knew what Woolworths stood for, and a lot of people felt affection for it, but that wasn't enough to save it, was it?

Let me tell you about one of your smaller stores in Carmarthen, the oldest town in Wales. A lot of people here speak Welsh, and a lot of people go shopping in Carmarthen from the smaller towns and villages around it. A lot of them speak Welsh too.

True, there are lots of people in Carmarthen who don't actively use the language, but who still know quite a lot of Welsh. A bit like the policeman I will tell you about shortly.

Carmarthen is also a popular destination for lots of tourists who come to this part of the world to enjoy the countryside and the coast, including growing numbers of people from the Netherlands. Lots of these visitors also like the fact that Wales is different, with its own history and culture - something which is obvious from the place names.

For quite a long time now quite a lot of local people have felt unhappy about the way in which your company treats the Welsh language. Many of them like your products, and they have been asking the company to recognise the fact that this is a bilingual community with a distinct culture and outlook.

But recently the Carmarthen store was refurbished, and most of the bilingual signs were taken down and replaced with signs in English only. In the food hall there is only one small bilingual sign. If it weren't for the way many of the customers speak, you could be in Croydon, Coventry or Colchester.

You will not be surprised to hear that this change did not go down well, and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) has tried lobbying your management to change things. Last month we organised a protest outside the store and collected a huge number of pairs of men's underpants to convey the message that your language policy is "pants".

Cymdeithas celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and has notched up many successes during that time. One of the society's core values is non-violence, and our campaigns quite often have a large element of humour.

The store ignored the pants protest, and the managers did not come out to talk to us, so this month we decided to take the protest into the shop.

We worked out that we could bring the food hall to a halt for a few minutes if just a small group went round filling baskets and trolleys with non-perishable food items (we did not want to cause any damage), went through the checkouts and then refused to pay for the goods, while asking to speak to the manager.

This worked very well because we look just like any other M&S customers, as you can see from this picture:

Some unhappy customers

While we were waiting for the store manager, there was a commotion at the tills because a large and very aggressive man pushed through the queue and shoved one of our members into a pile of empty baskets. At first I thought he was an irate member of the public who was angry at being kept waiting, but it turned out he was the store security manager.

He also managed to upset some of the other customers who were not part of the protest, as you will see if you watch the CCTV footage.

Although he works in a store whose customers are overwhelmingly Welsh, and many of them Welsh-speaking, your security manager could not speak Welsh and had a strong London accent. To be perfectly frank, he would not look out of place in a march by one of those far-right groups you get in England.

Given that a security manager will inevitably have dealings with the public in stressful and difficult circumstances, perhaps it would have been better to employ a local person with better inter-personal skills.

It's a question of cultural sensitivity really, isn't it?

Anyway, shortly afterwards a store manager called Jane arrived. She could speak Welsh, and calmed things down. She spent about ten minutes talking to us, and explained that many of your local staff were unhappy with the rebranding. Apparently your senior management will, provisionally, be meeting on 17 September to discuss the situation.

Jane was diplomatic, and she said she would sort things out with the security manager, who was hovering on the fringes while the discussion was going on, talking loudly into a walky talky.

It turned out that he had called the police and made an allegation of assault.

The police arrived and spoke first to the security manager. The young constable then spoke to us. He said he could not speak Welsh at first, but it turned out that he could understand the language very well. He  explained that he would have to investigate the allegations, and would go through the CCTV footage. We are confident that that will show what really happened. Nobody was arrested.

Our conversation with the police officer was also relaxed and friendly.

The reason I am telling you about all of this is because it demonstrates the value of cultural sensitivity. The staff at the checkouts, the store manager and the police all deserve praise for the way they responded, and we made it clear that our protest was not aimed at them or the customers, but the intransigence and lack of sensitivity shown by the company you run.

What we are asking for in Carmarthen is a store which recognises the place of the Welsh language in the community, which encourages the staff to use their Welsh and actively recruits people who can speak the language.

Wales also produces a lot of very high quality foodstuffs, and we would like to see your company recognise that by offering Welsh goods, clearly labelled as such. We think your customers would like that too, and prefer to see a store which identifies with the local community over one which has displays such as this:

'Best of British' display, M&S Carmarthen

You see, Mr Bolland, outside your store, you will not see many Union Jacks in this part of the world. It is true that opinions are divided about the Union Jack, the royal family and other symbols, but a glance at the political map will show your market researchers that most people round here are not very keen on such things.

Again, it's about cultural sensitivity and trying to be a part of the community you serve. Or to put it into corporate language, it's about your brand.

In the meantime, we are planning our next protest because we feel that too many promises have been broken in the past, but if you would like to invite us to speak at your meeting on 17 September, we will be very happy to come along.

We look forward to hearing from you.


Neilyn said...

Ymateb rhagorol. Os oes gan M&S unrhyw synnwyr (?), byddent yn sylweddoli eu 'camgymeriad' twp ac yn gweithredu i newid y sefyllfa ieithyddol.

Diolch am y safiad.

Anonymous said...

Penblwydd hapus Cymdeithas. Pum deg un heddi.

Jennytc said...

I must admit that I had to run most of your last post on this subject through the translator as I am only learning Welsh as yet, but I do agree with your argument. The fact that the security man felt the need to call the police and claim that he had been assaulted, although it seemed to be he who was doing the assaulting, is a sad comment on the way big businesses are run these days. (Shall I ever be able to write anything like this in Welsh, I wonder! ;))

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you Jennyta. Pob lwc i ti. Cofia - dyfal donc a dyr y garreg!

My tip would be to read as much as you can. News stories on Golwg360 are a good place to start. They are short and written in clear and simple Welsh. There are also some good, well written blogs. Sgen ti job i fi is very funny, for example.

If you find it's taking you half an hour to read a page and constant checking in a dictionary, just put whatever it is aside until you are ready.

There are also some really good contemporary Welsh novels. I have just finished Blasu by Manon Steffan Ros. A very moving story.

Autobiographies are often easy to read as well, and some of them are written in very natural, everyday Welsh. Nigel Owens, the rugby ref, is a good example of someone who writes pretty much the way he speaks

Mrs Angry said...

Now Cneifiwr: please - don't you have far right groups in Wales too? I think this is a regrettable tendency not exclusive to the evil English.

And I'm not sure about you all looking like typical M&S customers: why is the gentleman on the left wearing regency style breeches? Is this fashion still in Carmarthen? Tell him to nip inside and buy a nice pair of machine washable, non iron polyester trousers and smarten himself up.

Perhaps you might encourage the Welsh speaking men of Carmarthenshire to adopt a pants free protest, and go commando until M&S withdraw their Welsh language embargo?

Just a thought. Hold on: still thinking about it ...

But seriously, good luck with your protests, and I would be doing exactly the same in your place.

Cneifiwr said...

Well, no actually, we don't. Thank goodness. The English Defence League is, well, English, and the BNP never got anywhere. UKIP is also barely making a splash.

I am wearing regency style breeches at the moment, as it happens.

I think you would also enjoy one of our most popular groups, Gwibdaith Hen Frân, which had a big hit a little while back with a song called "Trôns dy Dad" (Your Dad's Pants).

Here complete with lyrics in English:

Jennytc said...

Diolch yn fawr, Cneifiwr. Mi fydda i'n gweithio'n galed ac amarfer bob dydd.

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm. Take your point about the English Defence League being English, something I had overlooked but ... I seem to recall that nice man who leads the BNP lives in Wales, no?

I am picturing you in your regency breeches, Cnewifir: lovely, but you omitted to tell us if you are wearing your father's pants, as is traditional in Carmathenshire.

I note from the song that the Welsh word for bath is 'bath'. Can't you invent your own words? Or is it because, like television and email, the notion of a bath is too contemporary? Except for keeping coal in?

Anonymous said...


Ai Cymraeg iaith gyntaf wyt ti neu ail iaith?

Cneifiwr said...

Mrs A, it is true that Welsh has borrowed words from other languages, as has English.

Television is 'teledu', and e-mail is 'e-bost'. Computer is 'cyfrifiadur'.

The official word for 'bath' is 'baddon', but most people say 'bath'.

The Welsh name for the city called Bath in English is 'Caerfaddon' (something like Fort Bath). The name dates back to before the first unwashed Angles and Saxons came ashore.

It is also true that the leader of the BNP lives in Wales, but I think you'll find he comes from the other side of Offa's Dyke. We'd love you to have him back.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Griffin has any links with Wales family-wise although he has moved to live here. His father was a well known Tory in the south east of England if I remember correctly. And the name Irish name Griffin should not be confused with Griffiths which is a popular Welsh surname.

Mrs Angry said...

No thank you, Cneifiwr, please keep him on your side. And in fact I believe he does have some Welsh ancestry, including, like me, some gypsy traveller roots. In fact,I am in a position to tell you from some research I once had to do that quite a few of our most far right friends have what their own parties would consider to be 'alien' or 'non British' ancestry. In truth most of us are a mix of immigrant dna and all the better for it.

Anonymous said...

I moved down to Ceredigion in 2007 and have not yet enrolled for Welsh Language lessons although my Partner has been learning this fantastic language for 4 years even though she is POSH Surrey. I have been trying to come to grips with it by having lessons off her.
Although I was born and bred in Wales the area I am from, Gwent, didn't feel it relavant to teach the Welsh language in it's schools. I cant believe the actions of this security thug though. I didn't think M&S would employ somebody like him. It's a wonder he is allowed to hold a security licence. You should have reported this incident to the Carmarthen Journal. They would have sorted him out. In fact, I'm that disgusted by your report about him that I think I will write to the Journal and make my feelings know.