Mary Porter presents her government-commissioned report to deal with the decline of inner city retailing. Has the Queen of Shops made a serious contribution to addressing the problems? And is there another story of her undeclared business interests?
Mary Porter has become a celebrity in the UK, thanks to her TV role as a trouble-shooter, specialising in fixing retailing businesses. As a late adaptor of such things myself, I had learned of her through my Business students and colleagues. She seems to have become something of a role-model, and worth scrutiny for her approaches dealing with leadership dilemmas
A confident message
On the day her report came out [Dec 13th 2011] she did the rounds of the media. I heard her on Radio 5 live. Her performance was impressive and confident. Her message clear. The traditional high street at risk from the giant retailers and the convenience of out-of-centre shopping.
An academic called in to comment would probably have gnawed away at the inexorable forces of change that have produced a dreary convergence of the shopping experience around the world (‘Mallification’ to coin a term for it).
Mary’s people magnets
Mary was upbeat and remarkably convincing. (“Sounds very charismatic”, I mused). She avoided almost all the usual business clichés of footfall, consumer value, visions, (not sure about visions, on reflection). Instead she offered ‘her’ map which has something to do with metaphoric ‘magnets’, which pulled people into spaces and places.
The old market-stalls were people magnets, and Mary wants more market stalls to help revive the high street by such forces of attraction.
The Indie trumps the BBC
I expected to find a rapid critique of the report from the BBC but found the most impressive summary in the Independent. It even managed to find a possible vested interests story which I will return to later
An Independent view
The recommendations of the report (with acknowledgement to the Independent) are as follows
1. New ‘National Market Day’ where budding shopkeepers can start a business.
Pro Those who can’t afford property costs will be able to give retail a try without the overheads.
Con Shoppers prefer the low cost but reliability of supermarkets and out-of-town shops. It will be difficult for a ‘Market Day’ to change this.
2. Local authorities to give business rates help to start-up retailers.
Pro Business rates is the great prohibition to start-up retailers, as rates are usually more than 40 per cent of the rental charge.
Con Cash-strapped councils will find it hard to reduce their rates bills, while established local independent retailers will claim an unfair advantage for new kids on the block.
3. Create disincentives for landlords to leave shops empty.
Pro Empty shops are the biggest blight to the high street.
Con Landlords are already struggling to find tenants for vacant shops and are already hit by the large cost of business rates for these empty shops
4. Introduce Secretary of State “exceptional sign off” for all new out-of-town developments.
Pro Could curtail, or lead to more suitable and controlled, developments on the edge of towns which complement high streets.
Con The horse has already bolted. The big four grocers plan to develop 19 million square feet of new space between 2010 and 2014.
5. Put in place a “Town Team” – an operational management team to deliver a vision for a high street. [Oops, there’s that vision thing at last: Ed LWD]
Pro Will allow stakeholders to collaborate and take responsibility for their high street.
Con Stakeholders are likely to have diverging views, and non-retailer and non-landlord participants may not have real clout.
How promising is the Portas plan?
Promising enough to trigger a national debate. Aligned enough to the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for the Big Society to have his continuing support.
And the undeclared interests story?
The Independent also draws attention to unrevealed interests of Mary Porter:
The TV presenter Mary Portas … laid out her vision to rescue the UK’s ailing high streets but refused to answer questions about her PR company’s links to the big property developer Westfield and other retailers.
Shame. Just as I thought we could have an all-round feel-good story and a new charismatic hero[ine].
To the Independent for the précis of the Portas plan; the image of the Prime Minister and Mary Portas and their undeclared interest story. Also to my colleagues and students for introducing me to the Portas phenomenon.