Mary Portas: smashing the dummies’ heads

Mary Portas’s Secret Shopper series ended on Channel 4 last night, and it left a rather odd taste in the mouth.

I’ve never worked with Portas – the closest I’ve got is onstage at a conference – so my views are based on the media persona, rather than the working consultant.  She’s an acquired taste – in your face, shouty – but I like her honesty, I like her passion, and I liked the way those qualities translated on to the screen in her three BBC series, when she was still Queen of Shops.

In two of those BBC series, MP devoted a programme to individual stores, typically owner-managed and owner-invested.  Fashion stores were advised on how to differentiate themselves from the chains; a broader range of stores (convenience, home decor etc) discovered their USPs and became exciting and different.  In each programme, every aspect of the business was tackled – financial, product, brand/marketing. execution, service, motivation, environment.  Stores were made-over, and turned into destinations customers would seek out.

The other BBC series focused on charity shops, and specifically the Save the Children store in Orpington.  There was plenty of tough love for the elderly volunteers, but the result was a raised profile for charity shops, and an improved offer that will hopefully raise the standards, and thus the income, of charity retailers.  It was a show from the heart, and compelling viewing.

Over to C4, and the whole premise has altered.  Brusque, no-nonsense advice and careful development was replaced by one blunt message per show.  In four programmes, Mary was going to fix four entire retail sectors!

Portas claimed to be “standing up for the customer” but I’m not sure how true this was.  She picked her fights in cheap fashion, sofas, phones and estate agency.  All of these have a poor customer service reputation, though I would argue that, at least in the first, this is accepted by the customer as the cost of cheap goods and fast convenience.  (Which doesn’t excuse rudeness, but I think explains poor product knowledge, for instance.)

In all four programmes, shop assistants were pilloried, for being good at their jobs, or for being bad at their jobs.  You drove sofa sales so hard you got a Rolex?  We despise you. You don’t know anything about the mobile phones you’re selling?  We despise you. This is Channel 4 bullying TV, victimisation masquerading as entertainment.  In my experience, unless sales staff in stores are terminally uninterested, they do their best to deliver the message their bosses want.

Why the sofa hard sell?  It’s what the boss wants.  Why the phone hard sell?  It’s what the boss wants.  But the bosses were soft-pedalled when we visited their ranch-style homes or admired their bongos.

This is fundamentally unfair.  Store staff respond to training, support, clarity of expectations, fair treatment.  There is little evidence of them sticking around for long after they’ve been publicly lambasted.

Next, three of the four shows – sofas, phones and estate agents – covered testosterone-driven sectors where, like it or not,  negotiation is the recognised route to the customer getting a deal.  This inevitably creates a combative environment, very different to the charity shops and fashion boutiques of previous series.

Typically, a single solution was mooted to these stores’ perceived problems.  Wacky changing rooms; a home design studio; a mini-Apple store; a better informed house viewing.  Essentially, these recommendations – all admirable in their way – introduce softer qualities to a shopping experience, but they don’t eliminate the hard sell.

I started to wonder whether the increased sales that the focus stores enjoyed were a function of softening the customers’ expectations, and lessening their negotiating drive.  These sofa people, phone people, were so nice that I was happy to pay full price.  (I think that’s how the Apple Store works.)

And, does fixing one part of the equation also fix the rest?  The estate agent now has command of the features and benefits of the property.  But if they still dress like schoolboys and drive fairground Minis; if they do all the other things estate agents do like failing to return your calls, conflating bidding wars, running the wrong adverts in the wrong media, sitting you down in their grey offices to bully you into a deal…  I’m sure none of those things happen in last night’s focus agency, but I still don’t see how fixing one element will mend the whole transaction.  (Quite aside from the fact the estate agency has as much in common with utilities or insurance, style-wise, as it does with regular high street retail.)

A couple of thoughts on Fairness in Negotiation: back in the 1960s, Roy Brooks made his name and his fortune from honestly advertising the properties he sold.  His adverts were very amusing, and apparently very successful – you can read about them here:  But in the subsequent 40 years, no agent – ever? – has sought to replicate his frank approach.

Second, back in the 80s, General Motors established its Saturn Division as a “different kind of car company”.  The cars were sold from family-friendly “retailers” (not “dealerships”), uniquely on a no-haggle basis – the sticker price was the selling price.  Saturn never achieved their sales targets, and the division failed and was closed.  Now, GM’s strategy and their model line-up had multiple flaws – but again, nobody has since attempted to replicate this selling approach.

Perhaps these are opportunities, perhaps I am too cynical, and Mary is right.  I hope that making surface changes to some small players will cause the big boys to improve their act, but I’m not banking on it.  And as for the “flashmob” sequences at the end of each episode – what the hell was all that about?

Too many words today, and I’ve only sketched in my thoughts.  I’m still grateful that we have retail coverage on the telly at all, though I wish the more measured BBC approach was still in place.  As a sidebar, you can check out Mary’s poll of 12,000 online pollsters.  The best customer experience in the UK… is Waterstone’s.  And the rest fall into place very much as you might expect.

One Comment on “Mary Portas: smashing the dummies’ heads”

  1. Joe Cushnan says:

    As a seasoned retail general manager for nearly four decades and author of my own take on the industry – Retail Confidential – I find the Portas approach (a la Jeremy Beadle?) is more aligned to sensational (and I don’t mean good here) television to make fun of stereotypical below average retail employees. The impression tends to tar all retailers and employees with the same brush. A campaign for retail improvement is not a bad thing, but we can do without the sneers, snobbishness and histrionics inherent in modern day TV presentation. I prefer the LCS method of analysis. Be very clear and specific about what we LIKE about shops, be just as clear about our CONCERNS and be extremely clear about our SUGGESTIONS for improvement – i.e. a fairer summary. Portas has some popular appeal but that does not make her methods right. And finally, retailers have been invited to post their reactions onto her website. They should be very careful not to supply her with yet more ammo.