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Mary Portas

The Queen of Shops says she’s right to criticise multiples, and believes indies can ‘bash the hell out of the high street’

T here was a time, back in the dim and distant past of 2007, when Mary Portas was to independent retailers what St Francis of Assisi was to animals. She dubbed herself the ‘Queen of Shops’, but to Drapers readers she was the particular patron saint of fashion boutiques, whose straight-talking approach and belief in service -combined with years of experience as creative director of Harvey Nichols -gave them a fighting chance in their battle against the high street multiples.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the customer-centric approach that was once Portas’s winning formula has arguably become her undoing. After her Channel 4 series, Mary Portas: Secret Shopper, in which Portas went undercover and secretly filmed allegedly ‘sloppy’ shop assistants, the sharp-tongued redhead is viewed by retailers more as a queen of mean. The public at large still love what she does (judging by her online following), but boy, has Portas made some enemies in retail.

In fact, the chief executive of one shamed retailer, Furniture Village, wrote to every member of the Channel 4 board to tell them the show was “morally indefensible”. Fashion industry figures are also rankled. Some multiples and indies claim Portas’s trademark candour has descended into bullying, and that she is less instructive on Channel 4 than she was on the BBC. Others say the use of secretly filmed footage “humiliated” staff on low pay, who would have been identifiable to colleagues regardless of the fact their faces were blurred out.

Web hit

Unsurprisingly, Portas is having none of it. Sat in her airy London office, she says she has been taken aback by the positive response from viewers. More than 12,000 signed up to her website, Maryportas.com, to post reviews of high street chains (see box overleaf) - fuelling Portas’s ambitions to turn it into retail’s equivalent of travel website TripAdvisor. Managers at Marks & Spencer and John Lewis have also told her they use the online reviews and ratings as a daily target in staff training.

“I was so over the moon because this is what it should all be about. I’d be saddened if there wasn’t that energy in the industry,” Portas says. She is disbelieving of the level of criticism from retailers, and discounts a good deal of it as defensiveness: “I can only imagine the people who are really moaning are the people who have got something to be embarrassed about.”

Who’s to blame?

Portas also claims the secretly filmed staff were let down by their managers, not her programme, but adds that they should take some of the blame themselves.

“Why is there not a pride in their job?

I can’t say, ‘Oh, you poor sod’, because they are being paid for the job,” she says. “Yes, they’re on a minimum wage [but] I’m not bashing them. I film undercover and then go for the chief executive. You never see me giving the staff a hard time. I’m dealing with bigger businesses. I’m not dealing with independents any more. These guys are making a serious profit.”

The latter statement, at least, is true. But then profit and profit growth are also exactly what the chief executives of value chains Primark and New Look - both of which were featured in the programme - have been tasked by their shareholders to deliver. Primark’s entire model is premised on a low cost base. Would it really be a shrewd investment by chief executive Paul Marchant if he increased staff pay and head count when many of the garments it sells cost less than a couple of quid?

“Yes! If I were chief executive at Primark I’d start investing because there is going to be a change in the way people shop,” Portas exclaims. “You can still be cheap and have a great service.”

Customers come first

Portas in the flesh is exactly like Portas on TV. She can be harsh, but she is also warm, unrehearsed and appears to believe what she is saying. A flippant, verging-on-inappropriate sense of humour also rears its head.

“If the only way to make profit is not to put customer service at the heart of the business, then I’ll stick my head in a gas oven,” she declares at one point.

More seriously, Portas says the UK high street is understaffed by “at least” 30%, and that customers have been ground down by 15 years of poor service to accept this, but she believes this is set to change. “I really believe [the gains we are making] are short term. I think fashion’s downturn is yet to come and we’re going to see the big, big hits in the next couple of years, for sure.”

Those “big, big hits” are likely to impact bricks-and-mortar retailers before online, she adds. “People will think, ‘Why would I go out if it’s not a great experience, if it’s not fun, if I am not going to be spoken to properly? I might as well go and buy off the internet.’ If you look at an etailer [that blends editorial and retail content, like Net-a-Porter], it’s talking to you, it’s advising you. [Bricks-and-mortar] retailers are protected from this on Oxford Circus because there are millions of tourists, but [this trend] is going to cost the rest of the country.”

This erosion of bricks-and-mortar by pure-play etailers is a major worry for high street bosses, and more likely to spur them to invest in staff than any of the other issues, but it also provides a major opportunity for indies.

It “gives them this amazing opportunity for connectivity,” says Portas, turning them into national or international players, allowing them to forge daily relationships with their audiences, and to harness the British media appetite for unique offers. However, there are other ways indies can re-engage with hard-to-motivate shoppers, she adds, such as home visits in the manner of Avon or, once upon a time, Ann Summers.

“If you can match convenience with creativity you’re going to bash the hell out of the high street and still make money,” she says.

“Micro-partnerships” between different types of indies in the locale could also provide fertile ground for them to flourish, Portas adds. She will not be drawn on the nuts and bolts of how this might work - I suspect she has just thought it up on the hoof - but it is obvious she is warming to her theme.

“There’s a big reason why [Prime Minister David] Cameron talks about big society. It’s the way we’re going to shift,” she declares. It has all the makings of a TV series. Certainly it would make her a bit more popular with retailers.

Portas on…

Selfridges…

[Selfridges’ Shoe Galleries] was amazing. It was really understanding what customers want and putting experience, service and brilliant product at the centre of it.

London designer indie Matches…

I admire Matches most [among indies]. Owners Tom and Ruth Chapman have incredible passion and they never stop pushing boundaries, [but] I’d like to put some older staff in there - someone I’d really listen to. All their assistants are a bit young. Sometimes it would be really nice to have an older eye.

Monsoon Accessorize…

I’m surprised [by its performance on Maryportas.com]. It’s still run by Peter Simon, who is always good at reinventing. I think that a visionary [at the helm] who is creative and passionate really makes a big difference.

Zara…

Consumers see Zara as more premium [than it is] and expect a better level of service.

Footwear specialist Shoon…

What is Shoon all about? Do you really think middle-aged women dress like that? How do they make enough money to keep that store on Marylebone High Street?

Secret Shopper reviews

Fashion retailers ranked out of 105 chains across all categories reviewed on Maryportas.com:

4 Monsoon Accessorize

“Very helpful sales assistant in the changing room and lovely service at the till” Essex

“I felt I was a disturbance. The employees have no product knowledge” Croydon

22 Republic

“Fitting rooms unattended so no one could help. All the staff stood around talking to each other”

Milton Keynes

“Republic always has chatty till assistants” Fort Kinnaird

28 Clarks

“Male assistants seemed wary of female customers. At 10am it will be mostly women buying, so put staff on that can cope”

Glasgow

“Lovely staff got out so many shoes for me without a complaint” Bristol

32 Marks & Spencer

“Staff are very robotic. Everything they say seems rehearsed”

Ellesmere Port

“I always receive brilliant service and feel welcomed”

Redhill

35 New Look

“Staff stood at the till talking and laughing the entire time I was in the store”

Bolton

“Very helpful staff. Well-dressed, smiling and attractive” Newmarket

43 Topshop

“Staff are rude, do not want to help and are always too busy talking to each other”

Peterborough

“Staff offered to call other stores to track down the item and found me another dress that was just as good”

Guildford

72 Debenhams

“Massive queues for the scruffy, overcrowded fitting rooms. Service is non-existent”

Preston

“Young lady went through four rails of Sale jeans to help me find the size I wanted”

Wimbledon

101 Zara

“Changing rooms untidy and uninspiring. Felt depressed”

Bayswater

“Three members of staff were searching high and low for the perfect top”

Leeds

104 Sports Direct

“No greeting, thank you or anything. It is absolutely shocking!”

Wolverhampton

“The managers are available on store floor if needed”

Fareham

***Rankings correct as at 3pm on February 15***

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