Mary Portas: “The old way of working is no longer relevant”

Mary Portas Meta Good Ideas Shop
Mary Portas at the unveiling of Meta's Good Ideas Shop, Bournemouth.

Retail guru and ‘Queen of Shops’ Mary Portas speaks to Retail Gazette about how shopping local can save British retail, her latest partnership with online tech giant Meta and why she hates the ‘mindless consumerism’ of Black Friday.

Traditionally the busiest time of year for the retail sector, the festive season is especially important for small retailers. Nearly 20 per cent of UK small business owners expect to make more than half their annual revenue in the last few months of the year – so after almost two years of lockdowns and consumer uncertainty, this festive period is particularly critical.

“Small independent businesses and local high streets are the backbone of the UK economy,” begins Portas, speaking to Retail Gazette. “After all they’ve been through during the pandemic, they deserve to be supported and celebrated more than ever.”

As the parent company behind Facebook and Instagram, it might seem a little incongruous for Meta to be championing the UK high street, but that’s exactly what it’s doing.

By transforming empty units with curated window displays, the Good Ideas Shop campaign showcases a selection of products and services from local small businesses, using QR codes to allow shoppers to browse, shop and support the brands featured.

“It’s a brilliant example of big business helping small businesses,” Portas explains. “This Christmas is deeply important for small retailers. Over the last two years, which have been terribly hard, we’ve seen so many of them fail – although interestingly, it has also been really good for the ones who have survived.”

Portas believes this is partly down to consumers realising the importance of small businesses, especially during Covid, when supporting our local economy and community became more important to many of us.

“Small businesses are part of our national identity. It’s critical that we help them to thrive, whether we’re shoppers or big businesses like Meta.”

“There has been a softening coming through, where we’re all thinking; ‘How do I really want to live? What are we doing to our planet and society?’,” says Portas.

She pauses, adding “I’ve spent my lifetime in business, and I don’t think we’ve ever thought about it as deeply as this before”.

This is certainly true of Portas’ own gear shift over the past few years. Arguably the UK’s best-known retail expert thanks to her high-profile television career and government-appointed review into the UK’s high streets, Portas now focuses on championing what she calls the ‘Kindness Economy’; putting people and the planet first, above profit.

“We can absolutely take this opportunity to reset our priorities and build back better,” she explains. “Consumers are becoming more socially and ethically responsible and want to support a broader focus than just consumerism and profit. Businesses who don’t address these issues will fall by the wayside.”

With these values central to everything that Portas puts her name to – from her The Kindness Economy podcast to her latest book, Rebuild – did she ever have second thoughts about forming a partnership with a multibillion-dollar global tech business?

“No, I work with loads of big businesses,” she laughs. “The size isn’t important. What I believe in, more importantly, is that we do something that creates and helps society. It’s about businesses respecting how we as people want to live and helping to create social progress; not just sell us things.”

Mary Portas Meta
Steve Hatch, vice president of Northern Europe, Meta, joins Mary Portas for the unveiling of the Bournemouth branch of the Good Ideas Shop

Pointing out that many small businesses only really survived Covid by embracing a digital approach, Portas enthuses about how easy many of them found it, once they took the plunge.

“So many of them were apprehensive for one reason or another, but moving online made such a big difference. When Meta approached me and said they were doing something that combined their incredible technological insights with small businesses, well, it was a no-brainer.”

There were plenty of other changes during the pandemic which also got the Portas seal of approval, with many businesses becoming kinder and helping one another.

“The old, siloed way of working is just no longer relevant,” she says. “It used to be that landlords would just focus on filling empty shops, but we’re starting to see people in charge realising this is about more than that. This is about creating real community and helping each other out.”

Working together is where the real appeal behind the Good Ideas Shop lies for Portas, who is impressed that Meta did more than just talk about ‘shopping local’, by setting up physical shops where people can interact with brands, find out more about them and help them grow.

“We must all play our part by shopping small, shopping local and realising just how important independent retailers really are.”

“It’s just so clever,” she enthuses. “You go to the window, put your phone up against the QR code and it just takes you to their page – it’s really great. I was speaking to the small business owners when I tried it as well and it’s given them such a huge boost of support.”

Currently a seasonal initiative, the Good Ideas Shops are scheduled to close their doors on Monday, January 3. With no set plans in place for next year, there is every chance that the campaign may run again next year, possibly even on a more permanent basis.

“Oh yes, I’ve got some great ideas,” she says. “I hope Meta are listening! We can take the Good Ideas Shop to as many towns as possible, make them physical sites and have all the different brands working, learning and collaborating together; sharing ideas across the physical and digital space at the same time.”

If you think it sounds like a 21st century version of the marketplaces which were commonplace throughout the 80s and 90s, you’d be right.

“That’s exactly it. All those small businesses that can’t afford a physical space – if they were rotated every three months, people would say ‘Oh, let’s pop down there today and see what they’ve got’. It was something I pushed for when I did my high street report, but what Meta are doing could work even bigger and better.”

Unsurprisingly, Portas is an advocate of big brands putting their money where their mouth is, when it comes to supporting smaller businesses.

“So many of the big credit cards talk about supporting small brands, Google talks about leaving reviews and visiting your local shop. But I think surely they can use their power to help them a bit more? It’s got to be more than just an advert.”

Rather than merely paying lip service to the ‘shop local’ movement, Portas believes that larger businesses genuinely love the idea of supporting it, but they just don’t know what to do.

“I know that sounds terrible,” she says, “but it’s really because so many tech businesses have never really worked with physical space outside their remit. They believe in what they are doing – but I think they can always take it deeper and further.”

Mary Portas Kindness Economy
More than just a podcast, The Kindness Economy has become a way of life.

On the topic of sustainability – a key part of the Kindness Economy’s ‘People, Planet, Profit’ mantra – Portas is equally adamant that businesses need to do more, describing it as an ‘inevitable journey’ for the way we live every day. She cites the example of 15-minute towns, where everything is either within walking or cycling distance or that we can buy it digitally and have it delivered.

“We need to think about the future of how we’re living,” she says. “When I talk about the Kindness Economy, I’m not just talking about businesses using their influence to look at how we are living and what’s affecting our planet, I’m talking about how they are affecting social change and looking after the community so that we can all have better lives.”

To Portas, Meta’s Good Ideas Shop campaign fulfils this brief exactly. “Big business helping small,” she explains. “It’s totally on brand.”

Embracing the interconnected nature of commerce, sustainability and the wider society is also vital to Portas’ vision. In a recent Instagram post, she spoke of her disdain for the “heightened mindless consumerism” of the Black Friday sales, urging her 74,000 followers to donate items instead. She knows it’s an unpopular view in the industry but insists it’s not one that contradicts her love of retail and shopping.

“Most people actually agree with me,” she says. “There are small businesses on Not on the High Street running Black Friday promotions because they feel like they have to – but their margins are so tight that they’re just not making any money. It’s heart-breaking really.”

“Look,” Portas continues, warming to her theme. “I’ve spent years working in retail, helping people and brands to sell more stuff – well, mea-fucking-culpa, you know! We all know now that buying too much stuff is killing our planet, but we are living humans who do need to buy things sometimes.”

“The problem with Black Friday is that it’s a shit show of utter consumerism.”

“All I am saying is that we should do that with a mindfulness and awareness of what we’re doing; ‘am I buying second-hand sometimes, am I buying sustainably, do I need to buy that much…’ The problem with Black Friday is that it’s a shit show of utter consumerism. When Pretty Little Thing is giving away products and selling dresses at 30p – we know that there is not one iota of consciousness within that business.”

So the message has to change, she says. It’s not about telling people not to buy things, but about encouraging them to do so thoughtfully. “And quite frankly,” Portas adds, “Black Friday is the complete antithesis of that.”

Portas is by no means a lone voice in this particular wilderness, as the anti-overconsumption movement continues to grow. Each year sees more brands getting behind the message, encouraging shoppers to think about their purchases – if indeed they want to make one at all.

In this respect, anti-Black Friday is a key indicator of the growing chasm between purpose-driven brands – such as Patagonia, who gave all that day’s profits to charity – and those who remain focused on making sales at any cost. Or as Portas describes them: “the give-a-fucks and the don’t-give-a-fucks”.

“Those businesses are tapping into a more emotional and much kinder way of doing business which more and more people are buying into,” she continues. “It isn’t just about being cheap, because we’ve realised that is killing our planet. We have to look at the values which are important to us – and we know that small businesses actually are the ones which are benefitting how we all live.”

By using her voice in this way, Portas is appealing to retailers and brands of all sizes to take a moment to look and see how businesses can work together, creating harmony within the sector. It’s an exciting opportunity for change, she says, and is one which doesn’t come along very often.

So with all this in mind, where will Mary Portas be doing her Christmas shopping this year? “I’m a complete mix,” she says. “There’s a great collective that’s just opened up near me so I’ll be going there, but equally I’m going to Uniqlo for some bits too. I will be getting some things from my Loving and Giving shops as well, but also – quite frankly – I’m going to be buying less.”

Meta’s Good Ideas Deserve to be Found campaign is running in Bournemouth, Nottingham, Aberdeen (West) and Newport, and finishes on Wednesday 3 January, 2022.

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