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Weighing the work of Portas effect

The self-styled Queen of Shops has turned around the fortunes of four indies. But is this success solely down to her advice?

Last year, ex-Harvey Nichols marketing director Mary Portas put out a call for any independent fashion retailers suffering from poor trade and lack of customer appeal to get in touch. The result was BBC2 TV series Mary Queen of Shops, featuring four struggling UK indies who Portas was charged with turning around on a budget of just £2,000.

A second series of the show has been commissioned after it proved a huge hit with viewers. But did Portas's common-sense tips really change the fortunes of the businesses?

Not surprisingly, the publicity following the airing of each episode gave the featured retailers a massive surge in customers and better trading than they had seen in years. But more interesting to those across the sector was how the changes Portas put in place have affected business in the trading period between the makeover and the programme being broadcast.

Anthony Wilson, co-owner of contemporary womenswear independent Handmade & Found in Islington, north London, says trading was mixed during the time between Portas making over the store in October and the run-up to the episode's transmission last month. "We had a bigger change than any of the other shops," he says. The impact was immediate, and Christmas trading was the best for several years. However, he admits that business was "very tough" between the end of February and mid-June before the show aired.

Tim Price, co-owner of men's and women's streetwear retailer Ju-Ju in Brighton, says despite the alterations inside and outside the shop in March, trading did not take off until after the episode aired in May. "Between Mary leaving and the show going out, not a lot happened," he says. "New faces came in, but it wasn't enough."

Portas gave each shop a much-needed facelift, either by decluttering and opening up the interior or by renaming it and repainting the faaade.

Katherine Taylor, co-owner of designer store Seen in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, was advised to hire an in-house designer to produce one-off pieces, while Ju-Ju was told to expand its brand roster and tone down its window displays.

Seen now turns over about £20,000 a week, compared with as little as £9,000 prior to the changes. "Last week we took £17,000, whereas this time last year, we took £14,000," says Taylor.

Karl McKeever, brand director of retail consultancy Visual Thinking, believes many of the changes could have made by the retailers themselves, and questions some of Portas's choices. "It's hard not to agree with a lot of the changes because they are so obvious," he says. "But she put a London, metropolitan-focused solution in places that are not that. In the short term, any kind of cosmetic change would have a benefit. Whether it is right or sustainable, only time will tell."

But some indies who watched the programme have hailed Portas as a genius. "It's fabulous, spot on," says Nina Grant, owner of designer retailer Corniche in Edinburgh, who says the show has made her reconsider how she runs her business.

And as further evidence of the show's inspirational effect, Portas and the shop owners featured have been inundated with calls and letters from retailers who say they have been galvanised to revamp their own stores.

Speaking to Drapers, Portas says: "There are a lot of struggling indies because people have dramatically changed the way they are buying fashion, thanks to the rise of the internet and supermarkets. My advice is don't try to compete with the high street; set your own agenda and figure out what you can do that multiples can't."

Handmade & Found

Handmade & Found, Islington, north London

Owners: Ruth Llewellyn and Anthony Wilson

Date of makeover: October 2006

Key changes: the black, white and grey shop front was repainted a deep pink and the name changed from Comfort & Joy to Handmade & Found to reflect the origin of the clothes. The interior's layout was opened up, including Llewellyn's design studio, to create more "flow". The collections were mixed together to create individual stories on the rails and the window displays revamped.

New brands: the focus was on developing an own-label collection.

Buying budget: is now 400%-500% bigger than three years ago.

Verdict: Anthony Wilson says: "It definitely made an impact. We had our best Christmas for several years. But from the end of February until just before the programme aired, things were very tough." However, trading picked up again after the programme.

Before makeover: breaking even

After makeover: profitable


Seen, Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Owners: Katherine Taylor and Jonathan Grindle

Date of makeover: February 2007

Key changes: more colour, mainly pink, was added to the interior of the shop and the name was changed from Homeboy to Seen. A designer was recruited to manufacture exclusive one-off womenswear pieces and the store's layout was redesigned to emphasise celebrity style.

New brands: Arrogant Cat, Lipsy, Bolongaro Trevor and Vivienne Westwood accessories have all been added.

Buying budget: 50% of the buying budget is now spent in-season. Previously it was 15%.

Verdict: Katherine Taylor says: "The makeover was amazing, there wasn't any need for the TV programme. The first week after Mary left, womenswear sales increased by £1,000 in just three days' trading. On March 15, we took £2,400 in three hours."

Before makeover: making £6,000 loss

After makeover: profitable

One One Seven

One One Seven, Banstead, Surrey

Owner: Diana Lazzaris

Date of makeover: October 2006

Key changes: the shop was decluttered, with 60% of the stock either returned or disposed of. The window displays were given a more minimal look and the rails inside the shop were refitted to face outwards rather than sideways. The rear of the store was covered with wallpaper, making the back door look less conspicuous.

New brands: Nicole Farhi, Fenn Wright Manson and Oui Set all hit the rails.

Buying budget: unchanged, but is now more focused on key brands.

Verdict: Diana Lazzaris says: "Since January, sales have been up 20%, but now we're up even more. New customers come in and say how much better the store looks. I was scared I was going to isolate my core customers, but that hasn't happened. I now have 30-year-olds and 70-year-olds buying the same dress."

Before makeover: breaking even

After makeover: profitable


Ju-Ju, Brighton

Owners: Tim Price and Soly Daneshmand

Date of makeover: March 2007

Key changes: the bottom half of the shop outside was painted black, with the top half retaining zebra stripes. Window grilles were removed, while window displays were toned down to let in more natural light, with neon lighting added to provide a funky twist. Up-and-coming designers were added to the offer.

New brands: Fame Will Come Later, Charles of London, I Saved Lawrence, Famous Forever.

Budget: increased due to the expanding brand portfolio.

Verdict: Price says: "The moment the show went out we were inundated with customers. Our break even point is about £2,000 per week and we were struggling to make that. We now make more than double that amount."

Before makeover: struggling to break even

After makeover: profitable.

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