Mary Portas: retail is not dead, the visionaries are coming

Mary Portas, interviewed by The Drum's Sonoo Singh.

Moss Bros, Carpetright, Mothercare and New Look all hit headlines last month with warnings of mass store closures while Toys R Us and Maplin both went into administration. The 21st of March was dubbed 'Black Wednesday' by City analysts, who painted a grim picture of the high street's future.

But, that same bleak Wednesday morning at The Drum’s Advertising Week pub, the Queen of Shops Mary Portas had a very different take on the future of bricks-and-mortar retail - it will be fine, but change is imminent.

"Every time I see that another shop has gone under....that Toys R Us is closing, quelle horreur," Portas said, rolling her eyes. "But [Toys R Us] was terrible. I remember going in 20 years ago and it was clinically depressing. This was toys and there was no creativity."

Analysts are quick to point the finger at e-commerce (read: Amazon) when it comes to the demise of high street retail. But Portas' withering assessment of Toys R Us's failings – and that of other crestfallen brands like BHS, Woolworths...the list goes on – isn't that they are victims of the internet but that they've simply failed to put what real people want at the heart of their business models.

"Jeff Bezos [Amazon founder] isn't going to rule the world. His model reminds me of Tesco in the nineties in that no one thought anyone else could compete....and then Aldi and Lidl came along," she said.

People behaviour data and not 'just' consumer data

"Back then, Tesco had data - oh my god it was coming out of its ears - and no other retailers did. But it didn't have an understanding of people and didn't put people at the centre of the business. Amazon is the same. Unless it stops looking at people as consumers and starts looking at them as people it will have problems."

Her outlook for the future of the high street, unlike that of the City, is unwaveringly positive. She said it's “a time for visionaries” and they are not only popping up online, but coming to Britain's high streets with a renewed sense of how retail could be at the heart of local communities again.

Making the point, Portas recalled her time as creative director at Harvey Nichols in the early nineties when she was widely credited for breathing new life into the brand, shedding its stuffy image and welcoming a younger fashion crowd.

Though she readily admits there was a "ridiculous amounts of money coming into it" at the height of the "bling culture", she was resounding in the belief that the elements that made the store a success almost two-decades ago are the same ones that successful physical retailers are tapping into today.

Future of retail: Build Communities

"We made Harvey Nichols a community. We put a bar in the fifth floor and put art on the walls, had Ru Paul launch MAC cosmetics... it was mad and people just wanted to be there to connect. We turned it into a place where people wanted to hang out. That's what's starting to happen; great retail is coming back by people who instinctively know that other people just want to connect," she explained.

"Connecting in communities is vital. But we lost that when all the shops were going out of town."

Retailers that are getting it right, according to Portas, include Supreme, a skateboard shop in London's Soho and New York's Brooklyn. In London, its premise is that you come in to look at products but more importantly you can talk to the staff, have a drink and listen to music. With no stock room, the space it does have is optimised for socialising. But if you do see something you want they'll have it delivered from a out-of-town warehouse to your home later that day.

"It will go global, there is no doubt," proclaimed Portas.

It's an example of where she sees the real future of retail; in creating spaces where "you live, eat and socialise" not just buy.

"I nearly bought a flat in the old BBC building for when I'm old. On the roof it will have Soho house and a gym downstairs; everyone there will be a mate that's made a bit of dosh and have retired. It will be a really social way of living," she said.

This isn't new. It’s a concept that many property-rich retailers have been eyeing, like Westfield, which has 35 shopping centres around the world, is slowly developing them to add more residential homes. Meanwhile Tesco, as The Drum reported in 2016, has a vision to sell ‘air rights’ to the space above and around its stores to property developers.

But it's a tough job to execute. Speaking generally on the later, Portas said that though supermarkets are in prime position to transform their space into something more social, they “aren't ready for it yet” as, faced with pressure to appease investors each quarter, bosses are unable to form the “long term vision” needed to pull it off.

Future of retail is here

For her next project, Portas revealed that her partnership with Save the Children – she is the charity’s ambassador and developed its chain of premium ‘Living and Giving Shops’ as part of a Channel 4 documentary - might be kicked up a notch.

“I wanted to take the big BHS on Oxford street for free and turn it into a big charity shop, the antithesis to what Philip Green done. But we couldn't get the lease,” she said.

“I’m speaking to Save the Children… I want to work on something that will give back; that would allow other retailers to donate their stock, or florists or food companies, and be a place where people could volunteer. Watch this space.”

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