Marks & Spencer was founded in 1884 by Michael Marks, an immigrant from Belarus who settled in the North of England; setting up his first penny bazaar market stall in Leeds Kirkgate Market. He sold small, high quality haberdashery and household items, attaching a sign to his stall saying "Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny".
Looking to expand his business, Michael Marks approached his main supplier, Issac Dewhirst as a potential business partner. Dewhirst recommended his Chief Cashier, Thomas Spencer who invested £300 into the business and the Marks & Spencer partnership was formed on 28 September 1894.
By the end of 1903 Marks & Spencer had expanded rapidly with a total of 36 Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar branches – 24 market stalls and 12 shops. In the same year Marks & Spencer became a Limited Company.
In 1903 Tom Spencer took semi-retirement from the business and died in 1905, after 11 years of partnership. Michael Marks died two years later in 1907.
By 1912 Simon Marks, Michael Marks’ son and Tom Spencer Junior had become junior directors and chief buyers under the chairmanship of William Chapman who had been Tom Spencer Senior’s executor. After a challenge over the future chairmanship, in 1917 Simon Marks became the Chairman of Marks & Spencer. Marks worked closely with his childhood friend, Israel Sieff who was appointed a director in 1917. Sieff later took over as Chairman himself after Marks’ death at work on the 8 December 1964.
The ‘Penny Bazaar’ title was gradually phased out in the lead up to the First World War as due to shortages of materials and rising inflation, prices could no longer be kept at one penny. After the war, the business began to concentrate on selling clothing and foods rather than small wares. To finance these new developments, Marks & Spencer became a Public Limited Company in 1926. New stores, known as "superstores", were built and existing ones modernised and expanded.
The St Michael trademark was introduced in 1928 as a sign of quality and value. Initially used only on selected items, the St Michael range was gradually extended so that by 1958 all goods sold by Marks & Spencer bore the name.
During the 1930s Marks and Sieff introduced new ways of working including challenging the role of the wholesaler within the business and took the decision to deal directly with manufacturers and suppliers. In 1935 Marks & Spencer installed the company’s first Textile laboratory at the Baker Street headquarters. The laboratory tested fabrics for colour-fastness, durability, shrinkage and also created specifications for the production of basic clothing. A number of these specifications were used by the British Government in the Civil Clothing 1941 (CC41) or Utility Clothing Scheme during the Second World War.
After the war ended Marks & Spencer continued to use the textile laboratories to drive research and innovation into synthetic and man-made fabrics. The 1950s and the 1960s saw an increase in clothing with drip-dry and easy iron properties hitting the high street created for a changing population looking for convenience.
Early Marks & Spencer penny bazaars sold some basic food items including confectionery and in 1931 the first food department was set up selling fruit, vegetables and canned goods. In 1947 the company trialled self-service food halls for the first time at the store in Wood Green, London.
In 1974, as a convenience culture continued to grow, Marks & Spencer introduced boil-in-the-bag meals, followed by international Indian and Chinese dishes and ready meals. In 2001 Simply Food Marks & Spencer’s stores opened in Surbiton and Twickenham and further stores soon spread across the country.
From 1948 Marks & Spencer St Michael goods were being exported around the world for sale in local chain stores and from 1960 these goods also went on sale in special franchise St Michael shops beginning in Cyprus and Malta. M&S continues to work with franchise partners around the world including a partnership with Woolworths South Africa which has been in place since 1947.
In 1975 Marks & Spencer opened its first Wholly Owned international store on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. In 1999 after rapid expansion across Europe, Marks & Spencer pulled out, closing all Wholly Owned stores on the continent. In 2011 the company returned to Europe by opening a store on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
In 1998 the first Marks & Spencer Direct catalogue was launched, followed by online shopping in November 1999. This website was re-launched in 2007 in partnership with Amazon.
In 2000 the St Michael label was finally phased out and sub-brands were introduced into stores including Autograph, Per Una, Blue Harbour and Limited Collection. The rebranding of the company to ‘Your M&S’ was introduced in 2004.
In 2007 M&S launched Plan A to help tackle climate change. Plan A works to make M&S carbon neutral, reduce packaging and use of carrier bags, practice sustainable sourcing, promote fair trade and encourage healthy lifestyles for staff and customers.
At the end of 2013 Marks & Spencer is led by the chairman Marc Bolland and there are over 700 UK stores and 400 stores in 50 territories internationally.