Mary Portas is known for sprinkling her retail fairy dust on struggling high street shops. Her business nous and eye for rebranding has seen her work as Harvey Nichols’ creative director before launching her own communications agency and fronting a number of BBC and Channel 4 series including Mary Queen of Shops and Mary Portas: Secret Shopper.
She’s an expert in her field – but if Portas could pick one high street shop to get her hands on and rebrand, it would be Marks & Spencer.
“I think their business model and what Marks & Spencer stands for is not relevant to today’s consumer,” she told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. “It needs to look and say, ‘if we were starting again today, what would this business be?’ I think it needs to really address that and the reason it’s so important is I think it would be tragic if Marks & Spencer wasn’t on the high street.”
Portas’ comments come just five months after the retailer posted its first rise in profits since 2011 thanks to strong food sales and signs of an upturn in fashion. Indeed, Portas acknowledged the high street stalwart had “done a really good job” with their menswear collection, womenswear and food – but went on to discuss her frustration at the demise of Woolworths, a former mainstay of the British high street which closed its doors at the end of 2008.
“I remember when Woolworths went, the knock on effect of that was awful,” recalled Portas. “And you know the problem I still have every time I see them, I want to get the people who were running Woolworths and smack their heads together because what they did, they left the high street and the pound shops filled in.”
According to Portas, it was the pound shops which honed in on a gap in the market that the struggling retailer failed to exploit. “If you look at Woolworths, their heritage was everything under this roof for one cent. That is how it started as a business model. I’d have gone into Woolworths and said I’ll pay a pound for that.
“These businesses need to redefine their purpose. And as for M&S, it’s a brilliant business that has an incredibly good product within it – but it needs to redefine its purpose.”