Love her or hate her, you

January 5, 2012
4 min read

In May 2011 the Coalition Government appointed Mary Portas, a retail advisor made famous by her TV shows including Mary Queen of Shops, to lead an independent review into the future of the high street. She delivered her assessment and recommendations at the end of 2011 which were received with both rapturous applause and ardent criticism in equal measure.

In her Review, Portas argued “I want to put the heart back into the centre of our high streets, re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning” “replacing the lightless, soulless experiences of the past” by “bringing something to the high street that the internet never can. And doing it with such a creative flourish that people come back time and again”.

Experience, Service & Specialism

Amongst the 28 summary recommendations some of my personal favourites include:

? Put in place a ‘Town Team’ (because every community needs a co-ordinating hand/eye).

? Establish a new ‘National Market Day’ where budding shop keepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business (fostering emotional investment in the high street as well as tapping into Mintel Inspire trends such as Immaterial World – status has become a function of what we’ve done, not what we have). Whilst some would argue ‘what’s stopping people from setting up a stall anyway’, the popularity of international events such as Helsinki’s Restaurant Day pop-up concept suggests that people often need these visual cues/overt promotions to focus on and prompt them into action.

? Support imaginative community use of empty properties through Community Right to Buy, Meanwhile Use and a new ‘Community Right to Try’.

Whilst I’m far from blind to the criticisms of the Portas Review (eg that it is uncosted and potentially idealistic), I still find myself siding with the now infamous red head. For one thing it was comforting to see in black & white someone else banging on about the same things as I do (and for good reason): factors such as experience, engagement, interaction, fostering emotional investment from consumers, specialisation, and, crucially, standing for something. These all are as applicable to brands in the world of foodservice as they are to retail and the high street. (For more information on these areas such as the please see Mintel’s Eating Out Review – UK, July 2011 and Eating Out: The Decision Making Process – UK, December 2011).

Whilst I don’t disagree with the critics that argue that Government could/should do more beyond the Portas Review, I get the impression that the critics are missing the point and are being distracted from the great point of inspiration that I feel the Portas Review should be.

Regardless of the level of future investment from the government, retailers now have to work harder themselves – fact. Retailers and foodservice operators alike should be taking the ideas from the Review and implementing them within the remit of their own budgets and capabilities: Mary Portas may be deemed a retail ‘guru’ but even she can’t be expected to cost out the exercise for every variation of operation available on the high street.

Start a conversation and be inspired

At the heart of the Portas Review, is a cry for engagement: be it retail, leisure or eating out, consumers are less tolerant of mediocrity in today’s climate and operators have to cultivate a ‘want to buy’ mentality – contrary to popular belief it’s about value for money not lowest cost – Mintel’s Eating Out: The Decision Making Process – UK, December 2011 shows that 52% of diners think that you get what you pay for in restaurants.

Whether the majority agree with the Portas Reviews recommendations on business rates, parking fees and landlord responsibilities or not, I’m confident that some operators will walk away from this with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and purpose…at least the hopeless retail/foodservice romantic inside me hopes they will.

For more information on consumers’ eating out behaviour and attitudes going into 2012, please see Mintel’s Eating Out: The Decision Making Process – UK, December 2011.

Helena Childe
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