The original firm was a chain of "penny bazaars", founded by Thomas Spencer and a Jewish immigrant, Michael Marks in Wigan. It became a household name thanks to the efforts of Marks' son, Simon Marks, and his friend, Israel Seiff.
Marks and Spencer made their reputation in the 20th century on a policy of only selling British-made goods, relying on quality rather than price to encourage custom. During the 1980s and 1990s, they went back on this policy. Financial troubles and their inability to appeal to younger customers did not alter the general trend. However, in 2001, with changes in their business focus such as the introduction of the "Per Una" clothing range designed by George Davies, accompanied by a redesign of their underlying business model, profits rose sharply and M&S recovered much of its market share. Other changes to tradition included accepting credit cards and opening their stores on Sunday occasionally.
They attempted to break into the US market, and also into the French market. This latter was particularly unsuccessful, and eventually they were forced to close all their French stores, though because of the legislation set in place by the French government to protect their labour force, this was a costlier exercise than the Marks and Spencer management anticipated.
They traditionally sold clothes from 2 or 3 large British clothing manufactures, using labels such as "St. Michael". However, the St. Michael brand has now been discontinued in favour of Marks & Spencer.
Unlike most of its rivals M&S resisted the lure of television advertising when ITV was launched in 1955, preferring to rely on its reputation to draw in customers. It was not until the mid-1990s that the first TV commercials for M&S clothing were broadcast.
In his book "Management - The Marks and Spencer Way", Lord Marcus Sieff (a former chairman of M&S) states that one of the objectives of Marks and Spencer is to aid the economic development of Israel. In November 2000, the British-Israeli Chamber of Commerce presented an award to M&S "for their unwavering support of Israel via commerce" (Jewish Chronicle, 24 November 2000). In 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu, then Prime Minister of Israel, presented Sir Richard Greenbury of M&S with the "Jubilee Award" in recognition of his achievements in strengthening the Israeli economy. In view of this, supporters of the Palestinian people have called for a boycott of the company, but given its continued popularity with the British public this seems unlikely to have any adverse effect upon its sales.