Mary Portas has put her money where her mouth is with a shop-in-shop at HoF’s Oxford Street store, but does it measure up to her own exacting standards?
A new space – Mary, or should it have been called Prêt à Portas? – is now open on the third floor of House of Fraser Oxford Street. It is a discrete shop-in-shop, courtesy of TV retail pundit and makeover queen Mary Portas. Visiting the shop, dubbed Mary & House of Fraser, should be easy for anybody walking into the store, as there is an express lift that takes you straight up to the third floor.
Although not strictly express (getting into the orange-curtained elevator involved watching lots of other lifts come and go before the doors eventually opened), it’s a bit of fun nonetheless. When you do step out, it’s immediately clear that this is not another of the many House of Fraser departments. The aim of the shop is to provide a lifestyle shop for the 40-plus woman, and to judge by the neon Mary sign at the entrance, she’s a fairly racy lady. It is also a leap of faith by Portas, who is perhaps best known for critiques of other retailers and therefore liable to receive a dose of her own medicine.
And if it works, expect more of the same in other House of Frasers – on the (opening) day of visiting it was by far the busiest part of the store, but then again, given that PR is another string to the Portas bow, you’d expect this to be the case.
Key looks and merchandise mix
Given the target market, the clothes should be about glamour without being mutton dressed as lamb and there should also be a few investment pieces. The investment side of things is certainly covered with woollen coats at a little over the £300 mark, or if you really want to push the boat out, a MaxMara tobacco-coloured double-breasted coat is £665.
For the most part, however, this is mid-market pricing and considerably cheaper than many other departments in House of Fraser’s Oxford Street grande dame. A Mary Portas-branded safari-pocket blouse is on offer at £65, while a long-sleeved jersey scoop-neck top can be yours for £38.
The major talking point about what’s on view, however, is the use of the Portas name on about 50% of the range. Branding of this kind always carries an inherent risk for the individual, but items were being raked over and tried on by many visitors.
Also worth noting are the Portas and big brand tie-ups. The footwear area, for instance, is a collaboration between Portas and Clarks. There are branded orange shoe boxes and each shoe style is named with a reference to Mary – the ‘Magdalene’, for example. Hosiery brand Charnos has also teamed up with Portas. Overall, the result is a small but well thought through range, which even includes homewares and food.
If there’s one thing that marks Portas out, it has to be the trademark red Mary Quant-like bob. With this in mind, a series of faceless Rootstein mannequins have been placed at the shop entrance and, although there are no features, you know immediately who they reference, owing to red wigs.
The visual merchandising is simply outstanding. The jewellery displays, in plain wood, glass-topped boxes, are a case in point. As there are several of these placed on top of a wooden table, the larger pieces are given their own box while the smaller items are grouped together. The strategy is simple yet effective and small typed notes about the wearing occasion for the pieces are placed next to each box.
The great majority of the clothing is side-hung, but not crammed – the shop allows customers to graze the offer instead of pushing things aside to get a view. But perhaps the simplest and most impressive element is the shoe wall. Formed of orange shoe boxes, the wall features an uncannily realistic mannequin climbing some library steps. It would have been all too easy just to create the wall and leave it at that, but attention to detail is key to the success of this interior.
One of Portas’s big complaints on her one-woman crusade for better shops has been the quality of service in many retail stores in the UK. Much, therefore, is riding on a high level of service in her own store. To get appropriate staff, an advert was placed in the London Evening Standard’s ES magazine that garnered 1,500 replies, according to a spokesman for the shop. ‘Auditions’ were held and a team was chosen.
All of them are, apparently, ‘stylists’ and therefore well equipped to put together looks from the clothing offer. And they did seem to be advising customers, all of whom appeared to fall into the 40-plus demographic, on what might suit. The challenge will be maintaining this level of service, which you expect but often don’t get.
You’d expect a shop-in-shop such as this to carry some of the traits of the host retailer. The odd thing is it doesn’t. The space has been stripped back to bare brick and there are whited-out windows. In essence, a retro industrial space has been created with make-do-and-mend-style fixturing. But this potential hardness is softened by visual merchandising and touches such as the red neon Mary sign.
Would I buy?
Probably. The positive about what has been done here is that it would actually be quite difficult to walk away without buying something, even if it’s just a bottle of olive oil, some coffee or a pencil. The negative is the position of the space within a very large building. In spite of the express lift, House of Fraser and Portas may have their work cut out in getting shoppers up to the third floor.
This is quite possibly the best thing in House of Fraser Oxford Street at the moment and the retailer has done well to keep faith with Portas on the project. The challenge will be maintaining the momentum that was generated on the opening day.
Address Third floor, House of Fraser, Oxford Street, London W1C
Shop size 2,250 sq ft
Shop design Brinkworth Design
Environment Softened industrial
Reason for visiting Different from the department store norm
Outstanding features The Mary mannequins and shoe wall