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Mary Portas Punched It Out At Autumn Fair

“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.

Above: Mary Portas was interviewed by Ashley Armstrong, retail editor of The Times on stage at Autumn Fair this week.
Above: Mary Portas was interviewed by Ashley Armstrong, retail editor of The Times on stage at Autumn Fair this week.

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.”

Above: It was a packed house with retailers and exhibitors crowding in to hear what Mary had to say.
Above: It was a packed house with retailers and exhibitors crowding in to hear what Mary had to say.

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She’s emphatic that this outdated model has to change.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.”

Above: Mary is currently on a book tour to promote her new book, Work Like A Woman.
Above: Mary is currently on a book tour to promote her new book, Work Like A Woman.

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…

Above: “What we have all learned about retail over the past 30-40 years is that very little is now relevant,” Theo Paphitis, former Dragon and retail entrepreneur told the audience who attended his keynote speech on the Tuesday of the show. “So much has changed in the way that our customers trade and the habits that they have got themselves into. For example, today’s consumers are promiscuous, and by that I mean that they love you today and move on tomorrow, just with their finger. Click. It’s so easy in terms of products and services. Disruption is still majorly in existence. If you think what we have seen so far is disruption, the next five years will put that in the shade. However, wherever there is disruption there is opportunity,” he said.
Above: “What we have all learned about retail over the past 30-40 years is that very little is now relevant,” Theo Paphitis, former Dragon and retail entrepreneur told the audience who attended his keynote speech on the Tuesday of the show. “So much has changed in the way that our customers trade and the habits that they have got themselves into. For example, today’s consumers are promiscuous, and by that I mean that they love you today and move on tomorrow, just with their finger. Click. It’s so easy in terms of products and services. Disruption is still majorly in existence. If you think what we have seen so far is disruption, the next five years will put that in the shade. However, wherever there is disruption there is opportunity,” he said.
Above: There might not have been gold at the end of the rainbow on Rachel Ellen Designs’ striking stand, but it was jam-packed with lots of vibrant newness, with founder Rachel Church and co-director Paul Roberts centre stage.
Above: There might not have been gold at the end of the rainbow on Rachel Ellen Designs’ striking stand, but it was jam-packed with lots of vibrant newness, with founder Rachel Church and co-director Paul Roberts centre stage.
Above: With the news breaking during the show that Joe Guest (far right) is becoming senior buyer for cards for Paperchase and (centre) Daisy Enticott’s remit is extending to cards, they and colleague Beth Flathers (assistant buyer for novelties) received a warm welcome.
Above: With the news breaking during the show that Joe Guest (far right) is becoming senior buyer for cards for Paperchase and (centre) Daisy Enticott’s remit is extending to cards, they and colleague Beth Flathers (assistant buyer for novelties) received a warm welcome.
Above: There was a strong environmental and sustainable trend at the show, evidenced by the Power of One feature area which encouraged visitors and exhibitors to pledge to make individual and business changes to their lives to make for a more sustainable future. Those pledging to make changes were rewarded with a free reusable water bottle.
Above: There was a strong environmental and sustainable trend at the show, evidenced by the Power of One feature area which encouraged visitors and exhibitors to pledge to make individual and business changes to their lives to make for a more sustainable future. Those pledging to make changes were rewarded with a free reusable water bottle.
Above: All Paper Salad teamsters were asked to make something (other than cards) that represented the company. The winning entry were some fabulous cushions based on two of the publisher’s cards, which are modeled here by co-founder Karen Wilson (left) and designer Leanne Smith.
Above: All Paper Salad teamsters were asked to make something (other than cards) that represented the company. The winning entry were some fabulous cushions based on two of the publisher’s cards (created by the company’s admin maestro, Rosie Bennett), which are modeled here by co-founder Karen Wilson (left) and designer Leanne Smith.
Above: After 20 years with Spring and Autumn Fair, which has seen her look after the greeting card sector, Alison Graham bid ‘bon voyage’ with lots of lovely travel plans to keep her busy.
Above: After 20 years with Spring and Autumn Fair, which has seen her look after the greeting card sector, Alison Graham bid ‘bon voyage’ with lots of lovely travel plans to keep her busy.

Top: The opinionated Mary Portas did not disappoint at Autumn Fair.

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