15 Sep 2022

Mary Portas: Future of retail is collaborative

The area around the retail stage, at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, was full of people when Mary Portas arrived. Many of us remember fondly of her BBC show “Mary Queen of Shops” back in 2010, reinvigorating a wide range of unappealing shops on the high street. Since then, she has presented many other TV shows and built her own business, becoming a leading voice in the retail industry.

Speaking at the Autumn Fair in front of an eager audience, she talked with Mark Faithfull, editor at Retail Property Analyst and weekly Forbes.com contributor, about the major issues affecting retail and how to succeed in business. Her latest book “Rebuild: How to thrive in the new Kindness Economy” suggests a new approach to doing business, offering practical tools to build back after the pandemic.

“My belief system has always been: how can we create a better and more beautiful world?” This is clear in her podcast, Beautiful Misfits, where she talks about how to create a new economy that isn’t based just on greed and gain, with a wide range of people, from authors and designers to business entrepreneurs.

“That might not be what we want to hear at the moment, because we need to make profit in business, of course we do. But what we have done so far in society, and business played a big part in this, is that we've chased profit and growth at any cost.”

Nonetheless, Mary is hopeful about the future and talked about how early Millennials and Gen Z are looking at the world in a different way, “knowing that the consumerism that we’ve all been part of will not takes us into the future.” She also touched upon gender inequality, having written about it in 2019 on her book “Work like a Woman: A Manifesto for Change”. She said women become terribly invisible when they get to a certain age.

“Historically, our currency has been youth and beauty. Men's currency has been power and money invariably. Men can get older and still be deeply visible. When we've had to fit into old power structures of the patriarchy, it didn’t work. A new feminine power is what's going to save the world. The Dalai Lama said Western women will save the world.”

His famous proclamation at the Vancouver Peace Summit in 2009 may be prophetic, but her main point is that we have suppressed feminine power over the years in search of individualism, and data. “And look, there’s the facts. That is not going to save the world or humanity.” The kindness economy is all about understanding how we want to live and creating a new power, built on respect, collaboration and around communities.

“One thing we've learned in this COVID crisis is that we are all interconnected. And coming together and using that power is going to be the solution. And that's historically how women have always worked.”

Before her seminar, Mary walked around Autumn Fair and talked with a few exhibitors, and some of them are finding new ways of doing business, by changing minimum orders and delivery dates. She said the main point is to ask: “how do we work together?” It’s all about finding new ways of doing business.

“There is no normal. This is the biggest seismic shift we have ever seen in our lives. And it's not stopping, it's keeping on.” Businesses find themselves in a position where it is difficult to plan ahead, as it is impossible to know what tomorrow will bring. Mary’s advice is to understand what is happening now and respond from the heart.

“I think we need to come together more, and the pandemic gave us a real insight of how that could work. We even saw big businesses coming together. That's what I'm doing through my podcast. And that's what I genuinely believe will give us hope in the future.”

She mentioned her experience at Harvey Nichols, that was a loss-making business when she joined. “We just threw everything at it. What can we do to recreate this business? And we didn't use data, we didn't use logic, we didn't need to look at last month sales or Likes.” Mary was promoted to the board afterwards and then every idea had to be paralysed and costs had to be assessed.

She found herself in a situation where people don’t take risks, are not instinctive and suppress creativity in the name of logic. On the other hand, the pandemic has challenged people to think outside the box, becoming a fertile ground for entrepreneurs. According to the Confederation of British Industry, the number of UK start-ups has risen 22% during the pandemic, and they are expected to contribute £20.4 bn to the economy.

A new analysis of Companies House data states that over 90 new businesses were created every hour in the UK during the first half of 2022.“I think it's crazy stats! What I'm seeing in successful businesses goes back to Simon Sinek, is why rather than how, so why am I doing this?” Mary says it is fundamental to talk about creativity and keeping it alive in business. 

“The new value system is not just about price, it's about what this will do for society, what it will do for the community.” Over the past few years, there was a growth in rental, as well as recycling and upcycling businesses in the retail industry. Mary predicts we are going to see more collaborative business models like that developing even further.

“We’ll see people coming together, actually joining forces to create micro spaces, like micro department stores, online and offline. There can be a kinder, better way of doing business. I genuinely think that is what we're going to see. It’s going to be better in the future.”


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