“We know that we are in very difficult economic times, but that is when change happens. When you hit the wall, the only way to get through it is to grow. That is what great retail is about. It makes you trust your instinct more and to do more instinctively,” said Mary Portas, the Queen of Shops addressing a packed audience at Autumn Fair.
It was standing room only as Mary Portas strode confidently onto the Inspiring Retail stage at the Autumn Fair to let rip with her views on what’s wrong with retail today, why so many big names would do well to get more women into the boardroom and how we all need to be kinder.
A longtime champion of putting life back in the UK’s high streets, Mary’s stressed how the future of Britain’s high streets is for them to become local communities. “We need to put back new anchors – from wellbeing to workout studios – to have doctors’ surgeries on the high street, and yoga classes. We need to create communities based around these type of services. Now is a time for visionaries. The old dinosaurs and faceless corporations are on the out and retailers who place people and community at the heart of their business are on the up.”
As someone who has spent a major chunk of her working life in retail, she is full of theories as to why some of the UK’s biggest retail brands have/are suffering, stating that “the biggest mistake” department stores such as Debenhams and House of Fraser have made is that their boards predominantly comprise alpha males. “What they need are women on the board who know what other women want,” she stated. “Take M&S. The board is almost all male. Where is someone who is instinctively feeling what women want?” (Mary herself was on the board of Harvey Nicholls by the age of 30). “Although 85% of consumers are women, only 10% of boards in the retail sector comprise women.”
She’s emphatic that this outdated model has to change. “We are going through a seismic shift. We have come to a stage in retail where we are seeing old legacy retailers collapse because alpha men have spent decades chasing money. In days gone by, you had to fall into specific codes of behaviour, and you had to be good at it. However, the next generation doesn’t want to live in that world.”
Mary highlighted that as more people become aware of the planet, there is, in general, a gentler approach to life. “It’s about people feeling happy both at work and at home, and it’s essential that retailers – and employers – tap into this. We have seen a whole raft of online pure players who have broken the old rules of retail by connecting to communities of people. Businesses have to put people at the centre, make them feel part of a community where they all have something in common. It’s no longer about the alpha businesses we have seen in the past, those that are male dominated with their structure and rules.”
In her latest book, Work Like A Woman, she points out that the power of women in business is in their values – their softer attitude, their kindness and their sensitivity. “The businesses that adopt this stance will be the ones that succeed in the future. Millennials won’t buy from companies that don’t share their values. It’s the culture now.”
Autumn Fair caught on camera
This week has seen the Autumn Fair bed down in its ‘new home’ in the NEC’s newer, brighter halls in the Atrium of the mega complex.
Here’s just a flavour of what else went on at the show…
Top: The opinionated Mary Portas did not disappoint at Autumn Fair.