Is Mary Portas talking to the wrong people?

Is the retail guru misreading the market in her latest attempt to transform the high street?

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Is Mary Portas talking to the wrong people?
Written By
Jacqueline Wheeler
I wonder what it's like to be on the receiving end of Mary Portas's lectures. In the first of her new consumer-up-in-arms series Secret Shopper, Portas gave Chris George, MD of fashion chain Pilot, a bit of a talking-to about his total disregard for customers.

Throughout the conversation she avoided eye contact and ignored his quite reasonable point that, despite the ghastly experience of shopping at his stores, the punters were still coming back for more and business was booming.

I happen to be one of those people who do complain and ask for better service, so I'm instinctively on Mary Portas's side. I agree that the British retail experience can be pretty awful, with life-sapping queuing at each stage of shopping, from fitting room to till.

In Secret Shopper, Mary Portas sets out to champion the rights of the customer, but I can't help feeling she's talking to the wrong people when she tackles businessmen like Chris George. George makes no secret of the fact that he's just after a fast buck and I was amazed when he actually agreed to invest in Portas's plan to theme his changing rooms around showbiz stars.

The objective was to create a "buzz" to trying on clothes and it certainly brightened up the staff and entertained a few teenage shoppers (or was that down to the presence of Portas and a TV crew?). Yet it struck me as an idea with the shelf life of an over-ripe pear.

The problem with shops like Pilot - and big players Primark and Hennes - according to Portas, is a lack of properly trained staff resulting in chaotic piles of clothing and a pile-up of disgruntled punters at the cash desk. So, how is pretending to be Kylie or Madonna on a cheap strip of red carpet in the changing rooms going to change that?

The people who need a lecture are the British public who cower before the hauteur of the store managers while grumbling fruitlessly on consumer forums. The only way service will improve is if we demand it - constantly.

Portas urges us to vote with our feet but the profit figures show that the market for cheap goods is huge and we'll wait 25-to-a-line to get them. If we are going to shop at these places we want to know how to exert pressure through our presence inside the store.

What we need from Mary Portas isn't another rebrand but some solid advice on our rights and how to exercise them loudly and effectively, presented in a TV-friendly format. If someone can come up with that show, I know it will sell.

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