Thursday, 20 October 2011

Mary Portas Needs My Help, Possibly

Mary Queen of Frocks

I have watched Mary Portas with great interest.

When I watched her show, Mary Queen of Shops, I was impressed with her knowledge, her focus on customer service, her ability to identify the underlying problems of the business and her discipline in turning retail businesses around. I have watched her turn a dated, fusty charity shop concept into a destination store, bringing the ageing volunteers right along with her so they were flying the charity flag and completely engaged in the business. I have also watched her highlight and overcome the challenges of customer service in "Secret Shopper".

I suspect David Cameron watched these shows too and thought to himself, “She knows what she is doing. She'll know what to do about our ailing High Streets.” Well perhaps not David, but a trusted advisor who may or may not have been approached by Mary's people.

I feel very strongly about the issues facing independent retailers in our towns, and their plight to survive in an economic downturn. I want them to survive. I want to be able to shop in a varied and interesting environment where I am not just faced with the same old stuff that I might find in any town in the UK. I want customer service too. I am not saying that customer service does not exist outside the independents. Far from it, but I want it in an independent retailer that isn't facing closure.

I have worked in retail for many years, initially on the shop floor and then behind the scenes in head office, and have had responsibility for the commercial success of departments, so I fully appreciate the challenges that exist for retailers. Yet I found myself shouting at the TV on Tuesday, and the previous two Tuesdays, when Mary Queen of Frocks hit our screens. It was because I have great respect for Mary Portas that I stuck it out and watched all three episodes. That and the fact that an affordable fashion range for 40-something women is desperately missing from the High Street, so states a 40-something woman.

Why was I shouting at the TV?

If I did not have any retail background I would probably have enjoyed the shows, loving Mary for her severe cutting remarks, her inability to make eye contact when she is being sarcastically critical (most of the time), and her original fashion sense. But I do have a retail background and, if I am honest, I want to emulate her retail consultancy business in a much smaller way in my area. Consequently I was watching the show with a critical eye, wanting to take mental notes and pick up a few pointers that I could apply. All I could see however was a stream of inconsistencies and contradictions.

She constantly referred to the store as 'her shop'. Yes, it is her brand and concept, but the shop was House of Fraser, the stock belonged to House of Fraser, House of Fraser payed for the shop fit and staff and the supply chain was run by House of Fraser. So not actually your shop at all, Mary. If she had wanted her shop on every High Street as she proclaimed, then the House of Fraser route to market wasn't the ideal choice.

If it was 'her shop', her name in neon lights, her red bob hairstyled mannequins, and her name on every label, swing ticket and hanger, why was she so adamant that she was not the brand, and her face should not be in the advertising? I think, this was the point at which my cynical self knew this was a marketing exercise for Mary Portas who needed retail credibility in the public eye to be the Government's saviour of the High Street.

Then there was the whole charade about the location. So, again, she wants 'her shop' on every High Street appealing to the 40-something market yet Guildford isn't it? London, Paris, Milan and *ahem* Guildford. Not quite the kudos she wanted. Finally, last night she admitted she was a fashion and retail snob whilst standing in the House of Fraser store in *ahem* Guildford.

I could put these contradictions aside on the basis that they are great for TV. Who didn't have a silent chuckle when she looked down her nose at the Chief Executive and declared she Would Not be wearing a pink name badge. But I could not understand her ignorance when it came to some really quite basic retail principles. In the first show she was shocked at the turnover her shop would need to achieve to pay its way in the House of Fraser store. With her experience and knowledge of the retail industry she should know the sales needed for the square footage of her retail space to be profitable. On launch day sales were about £18,000. Not bad. But her annual turnover target is £3million, or about £8,500 per day. On a launch day, with huge media hype behind a public figure, on Oxford Street, I would want to take at least £30,000 in sales. 

And why was she (retail Guru) surprised by the stock lead time of a fashion range? It was evidence that she had cast aside all her business acumen and allowed it to get personal, almost to the point of foot stamping. “But why can't it be here now?” I really wanted the commercial director of House of Fraser to start spelling it out. Well, we have to design it and then order it. The factory have to schedule our production run in with the other orders they will have and then it has to be delivered from the Far East which can take from 2 weeks to 3 months depending on whether it is flown or comes by ship. And until you can decide on the colour of the fabric nothing will happen. There was a definite 'tension' between Mary and her idealised vision, and the Commercial Director with her 'You need me to make this happen' air. Loved that.

The final straw for me was her constant harping on about name badges. She has a meeting with the Store Manager who presumably is a busy man. Granted she is too, but I'm sure he managed to schedule a window for the TV camera. But given time pressure, and the priorities of selling stock, surely she should have been challenging the replenishment of her best selling lines rather than banging on about name badges. I know that the meeting will have been edited for good TV but surely, as a viewer, who could also be a new customer, you would want to know that her dresses were going to be back in stock. Hilariously someone tweeted during Tuesday's show that the infamous Aurora Dress was in stock online! Phew!

I respect Mary as a very successful business person who has found her niche in retail but what 'Mary Queen of Frocks' clearly demonstrated to me was that she has never actually been a retailer. This was a major gap in her credibility which was why her retail venture was absolutely necessary. We learn through making mistakes and I think she has learnt a lot. In the meantime us 40-something plus women are grateful for her efforts, appreciate the lovely Lesley, Spencer and Mark and will wait patiently for the roll out to our own High Streets. 

Mary Portas
Mary considering my CV


  1. I love Mary Portas. In fact, I blogged about her yesterday too! Most interesting to hear an 'insiders' view on her work with HOF. I visited the shop this was rammed. The TV show is definitely having a halo effect!

  2. Interesting article - so I hope you send me more.

    I have watched and enjoyed MP, too. I even had some contact with her company but the staff involved weren't that... helpful. Oops!

    Nicholas Takács
    A Beautiful City


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