Mary Portas: The High Street Is Not Dead

by Duncan MacRae

Queen of Shops Mary Portas explains where retailers have been going wrong with customer experience – and how they can start getting it right.

In your opinion, how are UK retailers performing when it comes to delivering great customer experience?

Experience has always been important but there was a lazy time in the services industry in retail where it was so limited that people could behave however they wanted. When I think back to my childhood there was half-day closing. What companies could even start to do that now? What we have now is a marketplace, with the growth of the Internet, with the recession, and with global accessibility, you genuinely have a situation where the consumer is king.

The brands are now saying “how do we stand out?”, because if they don’t they’re certainly not going to survive. In the UK people, complain about the death of the high street – that’s not right. The high street didn’t die. Bad retail did.

What are brands doing to stand out?

2016 has become the year when we, as consumers and retailers, actually understand this new landscape. I don’t think we’ve ever seen it as clearly. I think we had about five years of e-tail with brands and customers stumbling along. Now the customer understands it and retailers understand it.

At the heart of that, brands are creating a point of view as well. It’s a point of view that’s now relating to a millennial audience. The other thing that is happening is that we’re now speaking to an audience, especially millennials, who are actually saying “I don’t need anymore stuff. I want to be doing and being, rather than just buying”. But you have to take into consideration that part of the process of buying now has to have an element of experience. And you, as a brand, need to deliver that experience and there has to be an element of legitimacy. There’s nothing worse than a brand trying to be something it’s not.

So there’s now a focus on paying for an ‘experience’?

Yes, but I do think we have to be very careful – it doesn’t mean we stop buying. It’s more about status symbols and purpose – something that has a lovely story about it. People often want to relay the story of what they’ve bought. One of the best brands at doing this is shoe retailer TOMS. The shoe market was shrinking. Independent retailers were struggling. In the shoe market we find it very difficult to do ‘stand alone’ anymore. Then you had TOMS that said “for every pair of shoes you buy we’re going to give a free pair of shoes to an underprivileged child someone in the world”. It was important that the shoes didn’t look terrible, of course.

But when my son comes home and says “look at this pair of shoes I bought at TOMS,” he doesn’t talk about design. He talks about the status story. And that story is a lovely story. That’s about giving back and there’s a huge amount of people doing that. You have to be careful because there are a lot of companies jumping on the green, ecological bandwagon and actually not meaning it.

We’ve now got a situation here in the UK where everyone has to pay for a carrier bag. Everyone seems to think that’s fine because we want less carrier bags in the world. But some of the supermarkets have been keeping the money for themselves and some have been giving it to charity. I’m always the one at the shop counter asking “where is this money going to if I’m paying money for this bag?” and some poor, confused sales person has to deal with me.

And that’s another really important thing about business. As a supermarket, for example, if you’re going to have a vision for what your business is going to be it’s so key that every member of that business understands the culture.

That level of experience and actually empowering people in that store. In the past, when supermarkets said they were going to offer you value nobody ever felt it was the truth when they went into those stores. You had staff who looked like they would rather be doing anything else than working there. Compare that to a wholesaler. Wholefoods is a lot more expensive but their profits aren’t any bigger. So just because a brand might be a value brand doesn’t mean you can’t have that level of service.

You can walk into a wholefoods and the staff were practically singing and you could walk into a Tesco and they were practically walking out with you. It’s really important that I don’t knock Tesco but it’s really difficult not to. But they have actually realised this and they have started putting their people at the heart of what they do. As a customer, the only things you experience are the people or, online, the service. That’s all, and so many businesses forget this.

Tesco said “every little helps” but you’d go in there and not feel that. So when Lidl and Aldi came in and undercut, there was no love and no trust so customers just went off to Lidl and Aldi. Think of other businesses, like a John Lewis or a Waitrose. Customers wouldn’t do that to them because they just believe they’re good. Whatever they do, we believe that they’re going to do right by us and trust is one of the most important things that we have now in retail. I think that’s one of the biggest things that happened with the supermarket brands. People just didn’t trust them. Half price wine, when we all knew it had simply been up for sale at double the price for 24 hours before being put on the shelf at its actual price with a sale tag on it. Trust is really important. Legitimacy is really important, too.

What else does a brand have to do in the future to stand out?

The big thing is that we have to understand the next generation and what they want. People are now always talking about us having an ageing population and I completely understand that, but if you can’t understand what millennials want and how they are connecting with the world, your brand won’t stand a chance of connecting with them. The baby boomers and generation X-Y were all about buying a property and filling that property with stuff. Millennials are never going to be able to afford that so they’re investing in experiences and brands need to focus on that and give them what they want.