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As part of our commitment to helping UK businesses return to growth, Nina Hossain, ITN presenter, speaks to Mary Portas about the future of shopping in the UK. Founder of Portas, a creative consultancy headquartered in London and Melbourne, Mary Portas has become a household name. From the age of 30 she was on the board of Harvey Nichols and opened her first ‘Living & Giving’ shop for Save the Children in 2009. This is now part of a 26 shop franchise across the UK and Scotland which has raised an excess of 23 million. Rightfully so, Mary has garnered the title, ‘the Queen of Shops’.

The hit

Nina dives straight into the session by asking Mary “what impact has COVID-19 had on the retail sector?”

Mary responds that once the shock hit, you could see the retail sector was hit badly by the pandemic. In particular, COVID-19 has shook up businesses that were going along as they used to. There is a lot of mediocre retail happening in the country, and now we are starting to see them thaw and not become a part of the future. The internet is a big thing, so it's no surprise that the ecommerce businesses like Amazon and ASOS have come out well in all of this.

The community

Mary continued that it is nimble businesses that have responded well to the crisis, not the larger corporate ones. They have gone out and changed their infrastructure by quickly setting up online resources and really connecting with people, not consumers - which is key to differentiate. We are seeing this return for local and lovely community spirit which gives us a sense of belonging, and we will continue to see that grow. Businesses that do DIY, homeware and pets are growing. As we are seeing more puppies in lockdown, Pets at Home are seeing their best performing quarter yet. Next also brought in Laura Ashley, a clever move, but generally the brands that are thriving are the ones with a good value system.

Social progress and the kindness economy

Nina went onto explore that if a brand hasn’t tapped into the community through social progress - can they do it easily? 

How businesses create social progress is what people really connect with and is now fundamental more than ever, Mary began. Authenticity, a word gaining fatigue within marketing, needs to go deeper than a marketing campaign - it needs to be a behaviour. Everything we measure is based on growth - not looking at the health of the business. We should ask what is the business doing for society? What is it doing for people? We should measure the success of a business on social progress. The ones who go deep into the hearts of customers are the ones who have a deep value system. Brands are now like glass boxes. We can see through them as transparency has arisen. There is more connectivity through this as authenticity starts within.

Marketers should be careful when they get briefs to go out to the market with messages about ‘community’ as brands may not be looking after their internal community - which is now under the microscope due to the rise of transparency. We are seeing more inclusive capitalism - everything is measured on growth.

Mary moved onto the kindness economy, and how the crisis has accelerated it rather than hindered it. After 40 years in the industry I have seen the way brands have marketed and positioned themselves, and it used to be about status symbols. Business was about status - wealth, luxury and succession. Everything was about show show show, this is now shifting toward sentience, respect and care. We are now seeing a more hair down marketing approach that is about discovery, for example local markets and farmers - people are putting people first.

The shift

This is how we are living as consumers, Mary followed up. We are now asking ourselves about what brands we are buying into. Am I buying into brands that are respectful and care for the planet? This is where the kindness economy is created. 

We want to do business with sentience and respect for the world. ‘Consumerism’ defines you with what you buy, rather than who you are; your essence. There is a rise of a community of mindful people, consciously choosing better. Bringing it back to the pandemic, which has made us realise what we were doing even more, such as that we don’t need as much stuff. So much of this world is out of our hands which has created a softer and kinder connection between each other. This broke businesses that were sailing, and businesses that did well tried to connect and understand how their customers are feeling. 

Will we go back to bad habits?

Nina raised the possibility that consumers could slip back into bad habits after the pandemic. Mary considered that it's always possible that people are going to have to buy things from Amazon, however this is a year that people are talking about fast fashion. Fashion is changing very rapidly by how they are reproducing and creating their products, but it is the role of marketers to create messages that show different ways of buying. Can we get influencers like the Kardashians to back this? Gen Z and millennials look at the world in a different way. It’s not just about getting a job, getting married and having kids. They are much more ‘woke’ and tuned into people and the planet - brands need to switch onto this as they are the future. 

More people have voices now, more women and diverse voices. If businesses give voices to people this will kickstart change. My advice to people working for companies who are not putting people first is to call them out. People who are creating communities and followers, like Palace and Supreme, create connections that their community buy into. This is a real shift from ‘I’m going to sell into you as consumers, to I’m going to sell into you as people’. If you create social equity, economics will follow. 

Adapt adapt adapt

Mary gives some advice on what businesses both big and small can do to stay relevant:

Fight local councils - how can they work with creatives? Councils loosened their rules on pavements, allowing cafes to have people sitting in the street. Push back on councils if they don’t allow this in future. Give them examples of places around the world. 

Queues - make queues exciting to encourage people to come in. Glossier handed out little gift bags to people in the queue with samples to make them feel valued and joyful.

Amazon -  think about what Amazon can’t do. Create connection, trust and community. Understanding people’s needs and values, information and joy. Creating a community of followers who think you’re a brilliant brand. People feel guilty when they shop with Amazon - not something you want as a business.

Physical shops - make them more versatile - get creative around spaces or share them. For example, a cafe can be used as a yoga space early morning, cafe for the rest of the day.

Department stores - should create market spaces, second hand selling, recycling spaces, and work spaces within their stores.

Big online businesses  - work alongside the high street - we’re going to see these businesses having a greater social purpose. For example Visa getting behind the high street, as well as Google. 

Mary stated that retail is a part of people’s emotional need state and they need to be conscious of this. Brands should advocate wellbeing and health, sustainable product innovation and return to craft. And us? We should connect with what we believe is right, continuously asking ourselves how are we living and how are we connecting with the world.

Catch up now on The Future of Shopping with Mary Portas

Mary Portas
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