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Mary Portas stands firm on C4 shopfloor staff exposé

Mary Portas has robustly defended the undercover footage of so-called shoddy sales assistants in her Channel 4 series, claiming they should have taken pride in their work despite being on the minimum wage, and that they were being “neglected” by their managers.

The retail guru’s Mary Portas: Secret Shopper episode, which alleged there was poor customer service at retailers including value fashion chains Primark, New Look, H&M and Pilot, was watched by

3 million viewers but has drawn widespread criticism from those working in the fashion industry.

Fashion retailers who contacted Drapers (see www.drapersonline.com and Your Say, p12) have accused Portas of bullying tactics and claimed that, by secretly filming sales assistants, she had taken aim at the wrong people and subjected them to “unjustified humiliation”.

The sales assistants featured had their faces blurred, but would have been identifiable to their colleagues.

However, Portas told Drapers the exposure was necessary to change the culture of the businesses under scrutiny. “This isn’t about them [the staff], it’s about showing them as a symptom. The girls at Pilot were being neglected,” she said. “This [poor service] is the culture of a business that is not investing in its culture and its team.”

But she added that staff should accept part of the responsibility, even if they were poorly paid. “70% [of the culture of a business] comes from the top, but they are the people on that shopfloor. Why do staff have no pride in their job and why were some of them literally ignoring me? I can’t go, ‘Oh, you poor staff’. You know, they are paid to do a job.”

Optimum, the production company that made the series, had to jump “massive” legal hurdles to justify showing any secretly filmed footage, Portas added, but the self-styled ‘Queen of Shops’ conceded that the way the footage was used did not show all the nuances of the customer services shown.

“When one does TV, you film for nine days to get a 48-minute programme and, to get the message through, there has to be a big headline,” she said.

Meanwhile, more than 12,000 members of the public have registered as ‘secret shoppers’ to post their own reviews of high street retailers at www.maryportas.com, which Portas and her business partner Peter Cross have pitched as the retail industry’s equivalent of travel website TripAdvisor.

The site received 1,500 service reports within the first 48 hours of launching, including reviews of high street chains Monsoon Accessorize, which rated best among fashion retailers, and Littlewoods, which at the time of going to press rated worst.

The website has ruffled feathers among retailers, who claim it is unhelpful and that their staff may be unfairly victimised in a public forum.

However, Portas has rebuffed the criticism. “The people who are really moaning are the people who have got something to be embarrassed about.” She added that “the good ones” including Selfridges and Marks & Spencer “love it”.

Portas has also launched a “retailer response tool” on the website, to allow retailers to respond directly to complaints made in the public forum.

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