Giant retailer Marks & Spencer is planning a full-scale assault on the general insurance market beginning with the launch of its branded household cover at the end of September.
The home and contents policies are to be made available to M&S's existing six million account card holders and offered direct to all its store customers by way of leaflets at its store checkouts.
People will also be able to visit M&S financial services centres inside half a dozen of its stores or click on to its internet site.
The company intends to follow up its household product with moves into other insurance markets, possibly motor and travel insurance.
It represents a high-risk venture for M&S, which is recovering from a collapse in retail sales, despite the strength of its well-known brand.
M&S's pitch into general insurance is being led by former director of insurance at Axa Direct, Peter Longstaff, who presided over the setting up of Guardian's direct business Prospero in 1994. He has been joined at M&S Financial Services by several other Axa Direct colleagues, including David Hiley as claims director, Martin Green as pricing actuary and Barrie Wells as non-executive director.
It is likely M&S Financial Services, based in Chester with 1,500 staff, will need additional experienced professionals in claims and customer services.
Longstaff said M&S had carefully researched the insurance market and was surprised to find the retailer scored more highly in terms of trust than many existing insurance providers. He said M&S's unique selling point was its strong appeal to customers in terms of value for money products.
"Our objective is to add value to the customer relationship by providing quality insurance products in a straightforward way. We will be making sure our products are not hidden behind difficult to read small print," he says.
M&S Financial Services, the store group's stand alone financial arm which had a turnover of £322m last year, was determined not to copy other retailers that had started to sell insurance, added Longstaff: "Unlike some other retailers, we intend to provide the whole range of insurance services including quotations, policy issue and claims handling. Our product will not be just another insurer's product sporting the M&S badge."
The M&S home and contents policy will, however, be underwritten by CGU. Mike Amphlett, director of corporate partnerships at CGU, said: We will work with M&S Financial Services to develop quality products at a competitive price."
A spokesman for the M&S retail group said it was not moving away from its core food and clothes business, but was responding to changing market conditions by selling insurance.