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Back to school with Mary Portas

Mary Portas (pictured) and Skillsmart Retail are teaching indies how to flourish. Drapers joined the first masterclass to get a retailing lesson.

What does a glamorous London woman with a passion for delivering comfortable footwear to the 50-plus market have in common with a dog lover intent on bringing healthy treats to the canine community? They are both indie retailers with a desire to succeed in today’s turbulent retail landscape, and were among the delegates to attend the first in a series of seven retail masterclasses delivered by Skillsmart Retail in partnership with retail guru Mary Portas.

Looking for help

The class, entitled My Shop, My Future, took place in one of Skillsmart Retail’s skills centres in Bluewater in Kent and attracted a range of retailers, all paying £200 for each class to help make their businesses more robust in the face of a changing and challenging industry. According to Skillsmart Retail, 22,000 retailers employing fewer than 10 people went bust in 2008.

A clear direction

The first masterclass was designed as a “broad-reaching” overview of the retail landscape, with later classes intended to drill down into specifics such as buying techniques and retail finance.

“It was an initial workshop to give the vital overview. The more in-depth analysis of each delegate’s business can only work when this is understood,” explained Skillsmart retail trainer Shalina Alabaksh. Alabaksh delivered the seminar, with Portas appearing via video clips. Top tips via video also came from Tom Chapman, owner of designer mini-chain Matches, and delegates received a work book.

The class hinged on Portas’s theory that to be successful, an indie needs to focus on three key points: in-store experience, customer service and their individual retail specialism. Portas’s business partner Peter Cross explained: “Traditional marketing wisdom says that if you centre on the four Ps - product, price, place and promotion - you will close the sale. The issue with that is that you forget the shopper.”

Mary’s top tips

  • Be brutal. Rate yourself and your shop from the shopper’s perspective. Is this a place you are happy to be in? If you can’t be brutal with yourself, ask someone you trust to be brutal with you.
  • Obsess over service, not price. You will never be able to compete on price with the value chains, so stop trying. Focus on service instead, and never underestimate the impact it will have on your ability to attract and keep customers.
  • The devil is in the detail. It’s the tiny acts of kindness that people remember and that you will become famous for. If someone has just spent £400 on an outfit, don’t be pernickety about charging £5 for alterations. As an independent you are free of all those bureaucratic regulations.
  • Be proactive. Acknowledge customers who come into your store, even if you are busy with another customer. They are more likely to stay.
  • Stop people in their tracks. Don’t use windows to showcase your best-sellers. Use them to express the spirit of your brand and grab attention.
  • Watch your language. Customers are more informed than ever before, so make sure your staff know their stuff better than your shoppers and use specialist vocabulary properly.

What did people think?

Sisters Michele Pritchard (top) and Helena Palmer (middle) recently took the reins of their father’s seven-store footwear business, Davina Shoes in London. Palmer says: “We were hoping for some ideas on brand identity. There are more answers to take away [from the course] if you’re just starting out.”

Maria Leese (bottom) is opening her first footwear store, Doris and Daisy, in Wimborne in Dorset later this month. “I came to gain knowledge that would help me get the business running without making too many mistakes. It’s a good way of meeting people and sharing positives and negatives,” she said.

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