Queen of retail, Mary Portas, casts eye on Australian businesses

Mary Portas has barely touched down on Australian soil and she is already scrutinising the retail and hospitality industry here with her razor-sharp eye.

We meet at a stylish Melbourne café and bar and sit down to discuss the state of small business, boosting retail and how to foster vibrant high street communities. Her knowledge and insight overflows.

Portas, who can’t be missed due to her distinctive orangey-red hair, which is cut in a short bob, orders a chardonnay. As we wait, she decides the table we are at isn’t quite right, and the music is too intense and loud. Within seconds the waiter is summoned, we move, and the sound chills.

The UK and US press don’t call her “Mary Queen of Shops” for nothing.

At home in the UK, Portas is famed for her BBC television series Mary Queen of Shops, where her mission is to delve into small retail businesses or community high streets and crack the whip on standards. If she finds poor service, a dated product offer, lacklustre window displays or inappropriate music, Portas won’t hold back on her viewpoint.

However there is nothing vindictive in her approach – her passion for succeeding in business is worn on her sleeve, and she works tirelessly in the UK and internationally advising, innovating and encouraging people to up their game and succeed.

Portas has worked as the creative director of department store Harvey Nichols, as well as running her own brand communications agency Yellowdoor. In 2011 she was commissioned by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to lead an independent review into the ‘Future of the High Street’. As part of the initiative, 12 UK towns were chosen as ‘Portas Pilots’, receiving the advice of Portas, the support of the Local Government Minister, Whitehall, and a share in £1million.

Portas came to Melbourne as an ambassador for the first Victorian Support Small Business Day, to be held on Saturday October 19. The event will see businesses around the state take part in offering special discounts, events and incentives to encourage customers to support their local store owners.

All in the detail

It comes as no surprise after our first moments together at the cafe that her pet focus is ‘detail’. In fact, she thinks all businesses should have a “director of detail”.

“It is just like that music bashing,” she says, “it is small things, the detail that counts, and that is what will help in the future of retailing in any business.

“I have been doing work in the UK for a big train company on how to make their lines better in terms of service and we’ve been through all the big picture stuff, price, running on time.

“But actually the ticket price and running on time are givens – that is what you expect. When you ask consumers what they want it is the small things. Women want a clean loo on the platform, and on the trains. They think, I don’t want to go in there, and you certainly don’t want to bring your child to it.

“If the trains are running late, they want somewhere to sit that is warm and possibly have a cup of tea for free.”

Portas and I discuss the diminishing state of independent bricks and mortar retail stores in Australia and the changing face of our high streets. Once they were for fashion, bookstores and gift shops. Now, cafes reign supreme.

“There’s no one reason you can point at … you’ve got huge growth of the value retailer, which is actually becoming mainstream and expected,” she says.

“You’ve got the internet which is making global brands accessible to market here in Australia – your ASOS, Topshop etc, and consumers are able to access these things online, and know these brands. Therefore those brands are able to come and put flagships in because they are recognised.”

Service factor

In what Portas calls “the bling years”, from the 1990s until the global financial crisis, she says people were spending freely, so retailers and business owners got lazy about service.

Now, consumers are much fussier about where they put their money, and they are less forgiving of poor attention.

“What happens is that the internet builds communities online, which [bricks and mortar] retail has stopped doing in this chase for quick turnaround, fast fashion and just getting transactions,” she says.

To be a well-respected store or business, Portas is adamant that owners need to build a community of local customers and put them first. They also need to be open to change and innovating their business model.

“There will never be a lot of bricks and mortar retailing, restaurants and small businesses, but we need to ‘reboot’ them. In the same way that everyone is trying to sell omni-channel and thinking, “how do I sell online?”, you’ve actually got to think, if I was starting a store again today, what would it be?”

The businesses she thinks are thriving are independent with strong communities and a social flavour. When we meet, she speaks positively of a small Melbourne bookstore, where the owner knew his stock well, and was able to advise on what she would enjoy reading.

“My local fashion stores at home know what I like … If they can’t compete on value, they should compete on knowledge, service and expertise. They email me when things I like come in.”

Community rules

As an advocate of creating small business communities, Portas believes in the power of local retailers working together towards success.

She calls local high streets ‘landscape department stores’ and advises people with small businesses to co-create events to generate buzz, and to have a shared website with information on sales or promotions.

Portas doesn’t hold back when it comes to her views on local governments, believing it is vital they do more to help. She says they need to review rates, parking facilities and even buy property in retail strips to put in stores that are lacking from the mix.

“The government has to help. They need to develop business, and protect and legislate for small business.

“They need to put quotas on the brands coming in from overseas to help local retailers,” she says.

Despite the challenges, Portas is optimistic that small businesses can succeed if they have the right attitude and passion.

“You’ve just got to redefine it,” she says.

Here, Mary Portas offers her 11 top tips for small businesses to ‘reboot’ and surge ahead:

  1. 1. You have an advantage over your bigger competitors. Chances are you know your customers personally. Ask yourself what you could be doing to help them more. Do you provide exactly what they want or (be objective) could you do things better from their point of view? What could you do they would be prepared to pay extra for? (20% of your customers will be prepared to pay more).
  2. 2. Are you and your staff happy people? Are you a pleasure to do business with? Only ever hire happy people. You can train them any skill whereas you’ll never teach a miserable person to welcome somebody to your business. Don’t compromise – good enough is not enough.
  3. 3. Is the stuff or service you sell and the way you present it the best you can do? Look at what your competitors do. Research online to see how people do it in other countries and “copy with pride”. Why can’t you be the best fish shop/plumber/taxi firm/accountant in the world?
  4. 4. Get a proper logo, DO NOT DO IT YOURSELF OR USE “A FRIEND”.  Have your stuff designed by good people. Take a real pride in how your business presents itself.
  5. 5. Don’t be afraid of the web. Used well it will bring you loads of business. Use social media wisely, have a great looking website, use Google Express to cheaply get better SEO results.
  6. 6. What data do you have? Addresses, e-mails, birthdays? Corporations call it “Big Data” – for you it’s a way of keeping in touch and keeping your business in front of them.
  7. 7. Do your customers know everything you do? Don’t assume that because they know you’re good at one thing, they will know all the other things you do. Ask yourself – have you Told? Have you Sold? 89% of new customers are with you because they had a bad experience with a competitor. Would it be useful to talk to people, find out what that experience was and make sure your business won’t make the same mistake?
  8. 8. Be thoughtful about the people specifying your service. The office manager ordering an executive lunch from your catering business would probably appreciate an additional little bento box on the side just for them with your compliments.
  9. 9. Be generous with your skills. The window cleaner in Hammersmith (UK) who posted two minute video’s on You Tube explaining the tips of the trade saw his business double. (Remember that the chances are you have a very small share of the potential market you could reach so, of course, giving away tips might reduce the total number of people in need of your service, there are always more who appreciate the advice and who will share it with mates but still won’t have time to clean their own windows).
  10. 10. Make it easy for people to recommend you. Give them some cards (or something simple like a pencil or printed post-it notes) so they can pass you on to their friends.
  11. 11. Be bold and take risks. The dangerous thing to do is play it safe.   If they ask you for 10, do 11.


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