The 10 Greatest Moments of Our Fireside Chat with Mary Portas

July 3, 2017

We had the pleasure to hear British TV celebrity and retail expert Mary Portas speak at Catalyst Europe last month in Manchester. In her lively chat with Adam Joseph, director of client success at ChannelAdvisor, Portas explored many topics affecting brands and retailers, including the digital revolution and changing consumer behaviors. We loved hearing her views on how different retail sectors are responding to the latest industry trends, and Catalyst Europe attendees listened attentively to her tips (we have the pics to prove it!).

But above all this, it was great fun — and truly insightful. Here are our 10 favorite observations from Mary Portas during our fireside chat:

1. Creativity in Retail

Portas revealed that creativity got her where she is now. After starting at a Saturday job at John Lewis, she eventually became creative director at Harvey Nichols, where she used the windows as art installations to draw people in. She brought in new designers, made department stores the ‘new playground’ with bars for people to meet up (after walking through the shop floor) and literally gave these stores a new avenue for sales. After starting from nothing, learning talent and drawing from her mistakes along the way, she went on to run her own creative communications agency, Portas, which now employs over 50 staff members.

2. The Evolution of Retailing

Portas found the change in retail interesting, especially when one looks at how people live today and how they are buying. Long gone are the days of market stalls, where people used to meet and buy. Markets slowly evolved into department stores, which in turn became tourist attractions (or ‘mausoleums’, in Portas’s words) rather than shopping places. In today’s retail world, retailers need to be where the people are — and the same goes for digital.

3. Advice for Small Retailers

Portas had some advice for Catalyst Europe attendees who are trying to build brands. For Portas, advertising is not that difficult: ‘Storytelling is what it’s all about and what makes you unique. Look at your product: is this actually any good and is it unique? Do people want it? What will set your business apart? Tell people something about your product: was it made in the UK?’

Portas advised branded manufacturers to create interest for people and to take the time to assemble the right team, as brand culture is really important for success. ‘Look up and let people into your vision,’ said Portas. ‘Everyone has a voice and they’re empowered. Get the best out of people. So many businesses lose the way without a vision.’

4. The Future of Online Retail

Portas has a clear vision of future online retail: The high street will be social hubs, with smaller businesses coming back and a social conscience returning. She can see more small butchers and bakers coming back, with pop-ups becoming more permanent. In Portas’s own words, ‘online will be about social groups, and there will be a seamless transition from store to online. People will be wanting something human: ’ For Portas, this sense of connection is at the heart of the future of online retail.

5. Passion at the Heart of the Portas Review

The Portas Review, published in 2011, stood out in the retail world for many reasons. According to Portas, it showed the need for change. ‘People feel more comfortable being uncomfortable than changing. We need to decide what sort of high street we need for the people who live here. The high street needs to become a social hub.”

6. The Reality of Retail

When it comes to new and attractive destinations, Mary Portas prefers to look at the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’. Department stores can take what others are doing and do it better. They have the opportunity to fully use their house to deliver something new. As Portas explained, department stores have made their brand a creative force — people buy because of the ‘in the house of’ aspect. According to Portas, retail is about space, senses and service. As Portas puts it, ‘You have to ask yourself: how can I create this today for today’s consumer?’

7. How to Save the High Street?

Portas is not a fan of interventions in most things, but explained intervention is needed for the high street if it is to survive. For Portas, it’s all about community spaces. Portas used the Woolworth’s chain as an example and took a look into what took its place: the pound shop.

She also drew examples from other cases, such as Marks & Spencers and Gap. When it comes to their struggles, the essential lesson for retailers is to keep an eye on what goes with the value market and understand why people come to you. For Portas, it is essential to know your customer. This means knowing who your target customer is and how you appeal to them.

8. Customer Loyalty

Use data from social media and analytics to know what makes your customers tick and come back, explained Portas. ‘The beauty about online is social media is free — it is not run by old men who don’t understand younger demographics or people who are just sitting with data,’ Portas said.

So use your data to understand the experience of your customers. Retailers need to have a quick user experience or people won’t come back. Portas cited Amazon as a  great example of this. The marketplace giant can see where users browse and recommend and link to what they previously bought, which has accounted for a boost in sales. For Portas, the high street needs to adapt to this idea. ‘In the past, you walked the shop floor to see what people were doing,’ she stated. ‘You need to sense where people are buying whether online or in-store.’

9. A Look Into the Future

Portas was quick to remind the audience that, currently, people tend to get upset with their interactions with customer service. “Brick and mortar is going to be totally about experience,” she stated. “Look at your competitors and what is making them successful.” And customer experiences will only get more important with time. So what are the trends going forward? According to Portas, not wearable tech. She sees a resurgence of social media and chatbot interactions.

10. On Her Legacy

When asked about her legacy, Portas opened up about her ‘guilt complex’ when it comes to her achievements. ‘I hope I made things fun and creative,’ she said. ‘In business, I think of all the people I’ve worked with who’ve gone on to do good things. I’d like to think I’ve cared for the small people.’

Mary Portas and Adam Joseph’s fireside chat was one of the highlights of this year’s Catalyst Europe. If you were one of our lucky attendees, we hope you enjoyed this session. If you couldn’t attend Catalyst Europe this year, take a look at our other Catalyst EU recaps here.