Retail guru Mary Portas on why the High Street most definitely isn't dying

Jade Burke

By Jade Burke

January 16th 2017 at 11:50AM
UPDATED January 16th 2017 at 12:03PM
Retail guru Mary Portas on why the High Street most definitely isn't dying

As Mary Portas gears up for her keynote speech at this year's Spring Fair at the NEC in Birmingham, Jade Burke catches up with her to find out why a personal service will make indies stand out this year and how interaction with customers is key.

What’s the single most important factor in generating footfall to a shop?

The thing about independent retail today is that you need to create a destination in order to generate the footfall. It is essential to create a destination. It’s about the ‘why’ as opposed to the ‘what’. You have to question yourself, what makes your shop unique to customers? How are you accessible? How are you generating insight to those customers? You need to get into the mindset of asking yourself these sorts of questions and finding out why people want to come to our shops.

What interaction should staff be having with customers, once they’re in the store?

We need to look at our retail experiences as social experiences and at the heart of this is interaction. Why would people want to come to our stores? To some extent to browse based on the reputation that your store has, but mainly for social and for face-to-face interaction. Although online retail is great and offers accessibility, speed, comparison and research – it can’t provide the connection that occurs through speaking to a member of staff in store.

Therefore, if you are standing by the front door of your shop, you should be able to connect with people and socialise with your customers. It is absolutely key to retail today and the businesses that are moving on and redefining their ‘bricks and mortar’ offer in today’s new super High Streets are those that bring that experience and connection, socialisation and communication at the heart of their businesses.

Is the option of selling online one that all indie retailers should take?

I think not to be selling online today, for any size business, is an issue. Nowadays, it is a given that this is where most people start their retail experience. Their smartphone is the first thing people reach to and if you haven’t got a presence online, that is going to be an issue to your growth.

We know that getting to the top and getting your brand through the doorway, which effectively is the internet, is not easy. What you should be doing with your small business is partnering with other businesses that have an online presence and which would be willing to work with small independents. Increasing social media and creating awareness is absolutely essential in order to be top of the game in this competitive market.

Retailers say that it can be difficult to meet each other to share advice, what would you do in this situation?

This is the biggest problem. Retailers don’t have anyone else with whom to share their problems. It’s lonely when you are at the top, and lonely when it is your business and you’re making the decisions and, so often, this is the biggest issue. I always advise retailers to read as much as they possibly can – look at what is happening in the market and on social media. What I think would be a gorgeous idea would be to have some sort of online forum as a networking site to share ideas – a ‘mumsnet’ for independent retailers.

Another thing that is happening now in High Streets is that people are working on their own and caring about their own individual shops – not their community of shops. The first thing that I would do would be to work with other local independents and co-create spaces. A lot more of this has been happening lately and it is hugely successful. It doesn’t need to be lonely being an independent, so get out of the front door and find out who else is selling and actually connect with your consumers. Talk about your business and don’t be afraid to use the internet to connect with other businesses. Towns are starting to take this approach and so should independent retailers.

In your experience of challenged retailers, what’s the most common mistake?

A lot of independent retailers don’t look at the big retailers as competition. If you look at the big retailers, such as Ikea – they have a buying team of about 30 people and global connections. You have just you. You need to look at what they are doing and work out what sets you apart.

Often, it is the bespoke, personal service that is key to an independent. You should start to build trust, search for them and research what they want – source for your customer’s base needs. It is also extremely important to read trade and consumer magazines such as home interior titles. You need to make time for research and remember that time isn’t just for selling.

What would be the steps you would take for the turn-around of a failing retail business? 

The first thing that I look at is the people. Are they the right people? It’s never the business, it’s the people behind it – what are their intentions, are they passionate? You will make mistakes. It is important to edit the focus and what it is that you stand for as well as understanding the space for you within retail. Look at competitors and why they are successful, and don’t be afraid to look at other industries and how brands are doing well in their own market places. For example, why is it that Ted Baker has the male grooming sector sorted?

The British High Street faces some well-documented challenges, but what are the most exciting opportunities?

The British High Street faces challenges all the time, and nothing is worse than the fact that tax has now gone up – rates have gone up again and trebled in price – bless anybody trying to maintain a business on the High Street today.

When I wrote my High Street report in 2011, all the big businesses were saying it was all about ‘out of town’ big supermarkets and a lot of the economists were saying that it was all going to go online. What they forgot were two things: people are human and they want to connect. They want to get outside their homes, despite the internet having become such a part of their everyday lives. They still want experiences and want to make connections.

Secondly, when the crash happened, people looked at how they were spending money. They did not want to be spending money on petrol to drive out of town and do a big week’s shopping in a big supermarket. Because of this, the local independents are seeing more footfall with half of every pound spent going on food. This is a great development as it is bringing people back to the local shops. Culturally, it is moving the right way, but sadly the government is not making it any easier.

When you come to Spring Fair this year, what will you be looking for?

One of the things I am most interested in is seeing how people are spending today – what are the consumer spends and how are we living? If you don’t understand how people are living, you simply can’t sell to them. I will be looking at some of the influencers as well as global influences, such as how some countries are growing and what it is that they are doing differently in comparison to us. I’m also interested in gaining future insights and things to look out for over the coming months.

When I was researching for my High Street report in 2011, the majority of respondents said that the High Street was failing – and it most definitely is not. Regeneration is continually happening and this is why small independent shops are crucial to the social infrastructure of the country.

Mary Portas will be speaking at Spring Fair on Monday February 6th.