Mary Portas’ government-backed review of the high street will not be ready until the autumn, but she has some tips for independent retailers
The Prime Minister’s decision to task TV retail guru Mary Portas with preparing an independent review of the high street could easily be dismissed as something of a gimmick, but as long as her findings are taken seriously it is the independent retail sector that has the most to gain.
The government is keen to stress that Portas’ review will be independent. This, of course, is double-edged on the one hand it allows Portas to present her personal opinions removed from the fudge and compromise of the political world, but on the other it means government is not bound to adopt her recommendations.
But there is no doubt that Portas is a strong believer in diversity on the high street, and is opposed to the spread of ‘clone town’ chain stores. And she is going to spend the summer in a series of meetings and store visits to look for ways that independent retailers can be supported and encouraged to add their own special flavour to shopping locations throughout the UK.
What you can do:
Take part in the official review of the high street by making a comment at www.bis.gov.uk/highstreet
Contact your local MP and local councillors urging them to support ‘town centre first’ planning solutions
Send a pro forma letter to your MP calling on them to sign EDM 1453 ‘Future of high streets’ at www.acs.org.uk/highstreets
Put your own house in order: continue to focus on great service and creative promotions to please your customers
But, at the same time, she is also urging independent retailers to take matters into their own hands by collectively upping their game. Speaking to C-Store in the week of the review announcement, Portas said that the biggest opportunity for small stores is in customer service, adding that independents “still have some work to do here”.
She said: “There has always been some brilliant customer service in the independent sector, but there has been some appalling service, too. Consumers have become more aware and more wary. Sometimes we need to be reminded how to spend, and service is the number one way to do this. For me, service is the new selling.
“You need to put the customer at the centre of everything you do,” she continued. “Be happy! Care! It only takes five minutes to find out who a customer is and what they want. No multiple is going to say ‘I’ll get that product in just for you’, so it’s an easy win. Service and trust are so important we all want to feel there are people who care about us. Do you care if your latest customer doesn’t come back?”
Portas also suggests that c-store retailers should be more creative with promotions in order to delight customers. “It’s not just about margin. If you offer a free newspaper with a coffee what does that cost you, really? Environment is important, too. If you say you sell fresh produce then make sure it is fresh. If it’s off, don’t try to sell it. The big chains don’t do that.
“Finally, there is understanding the new value. There is a value in convenience and saving people’s time. It’s a pain having to get in the car to get anywhere, so small shops should be taking advantage of that.”
We can only hope that Mary Portas’ focus on and passion for retail diversity can feed through into the recommendations that she will hand to the government later this year, and that the government will take positive action to help support the independent sector as a result. In addition, the government’s Localism Bill which is designed to promote local enterprise is going through parliament, so there is another potential cause for stores to rally around. But while we are waiting, there is still a lot that independent retailers can do to keep their customers coming back for more.