Target’s Marks & Spencer Collaboration Brings British Christmas to America

Target, the big-box retailer, is selling a 15-item collection of Christmas food novelties from Marks & Spencer, my all-time favorite British grocer. The programme, available in stores and online, is heavy on collector coins, including a music box and one shaped like a double-decker bus. If, for some reason, you’re sick of your Christmas biscuit boxes not doubling as light home decor, take it easy – prayers are answered. For anyone else wondering why Target is importing a holiday collection from a British grocery store, let me explain.

Here’s what you need to know about British supermarket chains: Unlike the United States, where beloved regional stores are largely consolidated into a handful of monopolies that have retained local branding, the result is a kind of mediocre cross-country identity, the big ones here are largely independent and individual in their corporate identity. And yet Britain is small enough that it is, in fact, one region, grocery-wise. All the prominent chains are national concerns.

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Tesco is where you get a Cornetto at 9:50 on a Sunday night when you’ve had a bit of wine after sitting in the park all day. Asda is an overgrown and less bleak Tesco. The blaringly orange monolith Sainsbury’s is the average British baseline. The Co-op has a bit of magic, and they do funerals too? Waitrose sits at the top of the heap, the prettiest of the bunch, branded as green as the lawns of the Buck House, where the raspberry king lives.

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M&S sit a little aside with these. It has been spun off from its origins as a food hall in a department store on Oxford Street, so its convenience food and grocery outlets, still known as “food halls”, retain a lifestyle feel nearby. In the UK, M&S has a reputation for being high quality but expensive. (Over in its lingerie department, it has historically been known for selling really good underwear.)

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Announcing the partnership, Food & Wine compared M&S to its new partner, but I find it more Trader Joe’s than Target. Like Trader Joe’s, M&S sells mostly its own brand of everything; its seasonal rotation of one-off novelty products is strong; he eagerly indulges in tempting global foodways and indulges in a little rip-off; and there’s a strange inside story scattered across its grocery aisles, if you know how to find it. For example, this year M&S celebrated the 30th birthday of their mascot, Percy Pig, with some awesome themed products and a historic pink plaque acknowledging him at Paddington station.

A music box like a gingerbread house and a few gingerbread men

One of the Marks & Spencer collector’s coins available.
Marks & Spencer

So what’s the value of bringing M&S products to Target for the holidays? RetailWire has speculated that Target is trying to replicate its synergy with a much-hyped fashion brand in its grocery department. M&S might be a good candidate because its products aren’t available in the US, giving them a rare glimpse into Target’s many designer collaborations. For a grocery chain it has a very strong – and particularly British – brand identity. One way that comes through is how irresponsible in addition his Christmas bonanza is. Since I don’t celebrate Christmas, US Happy Holiday culture has always felt a little expressive. In the UK, however, they don’t even pretend there is anything else to celebrate. And since there are many modern Victorian Christmas traditions – as popularized by Queen Victoria – M&S products bring a bit of this British Christmas spirit to Target.

More powerfully, the grocery arm of M&S presents a British culture that makes culture its biggest export. The aisles are stocked with products like West Country Luxury Yogurt in flavors like strawberries and cream that evoke Arcadian Albion with its neon-green pastures and soft “Goblin Market” fruit bounties, and others like an Indian Starter Selection Side Dish, which speaks to the country’s restaurant. post-Blairite and post-colonial (sort of) reformed into a modern world capital. Other British grocery chains also sell international products, but the framing of M&S makes its Britishness pointed and egregious.

You may have read all this and thought, isn’t the whole of the UK really scary? Have they not burned through leaders in four months? (Five if you count monarchs, I guess.) Isn’t their economy ruined? Didn’t they completely and utterly screw themselves? Why would we want mementos of that?

It’s all true, and if it’s okay to speculate in the name of journalism: If I were a company with a somewhat international brand identity that had already provided Christmas inventory, and still I was worried that I might not be able to sell it to the completely fucked consumers whose currency had completely collapsed, I might try to offload it somewhere that might have some cache. Just theorizing for funsies – I have no rock-hard evidence for this. All I have are pairs of M&S Outstanding Value underwear that I bought in 2006, and they show no signs of slowing down. So if you’re about to waste your money on things you don’t really need, this M&S stuff is pretty good.

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