There's Something About Mary

Like Marmite, people tend to love or hate Mary Portas and her no-nonsense approach to retail and branding.

I am sat in the Guild Hall, Bath with a sell-out audience of 400 people, predominantly women, listening to Mary Portas in conversation with Viv Groskop. As a part of the Bath Literature Festival Mary is in town to promote her book, A Memoir, entitled ‘Shop Girl.’ While there maybe those that don’t necessarily agree with Mary, no-one can deny that she is bloody good at what she does. Back in 2007 when she appeared on screen with ‘Mary, Queen of Shops’ I was hooked with her direct, witty but personable style. 

Her fundamental understanding of what customers want combined with a unique retail experience, alongside top-notch customer service (yes, the customer is always right), is so spot-on you’d think that retail was in her blood from the word go. Surprising this is not so, while in her book she recalls a first ‘shop’ memory and her Dad displays some excellent patter selling Brooke Bond tea, Mary stumbles into her initial career as a visual merchandiser by chance. Initially, as a teen, Mary had her eye on an acting career but after a period of family turmoil she reluctantly enrols on a Visual Merchandising course at Cassio College in Watford, it’s creative and it’s local but not what she really wants, at least not yet.

JoJo gets to meet with Mary for a brief chat and a signed copy of her book

It wasn’t until she landed some work experience with the display team at Harvey Nichols that she began to see the potential of working in retail…

‘As I stared at the huge store-front windows at the end of the day, I suddenly glimpsed the possibility that Cassio might offer me for the first time. Sitting in a lecture, I’d heard that Salvador Dali had designed windows. So had Andy Warhol. Now I understood why. These windows were art, drama, a fantasy landscape where anything could be played out, a performance. They were a stage, and through them the audience of passers-by were transported just as they were when they watched a play. My love of drama had found a new outlet.’

This marked the beginning of Mary’s retail path and who would have known that a decade down the line this very same work experience girl would be credited with turning Harvey Nichols from a staid department store into a luxury powerhouse. Not bad for a girl that was told, “she would have no future in retail,” by her college lecturer. ‘Shop Girl’ makes for an inspirational read, you can’t help but want Mary to succeed, her guts, determination and sheer hard graft shine through as she does her time working for next to nothing and living on her own in a tiny North London bedsit.

So what is it about Mary that draws us in? “Business is about people, it’s about inspiring people,” she states to Viv. And it’s this notion of bringing out the best in people, working with their strengths and encouraging proactive behaviour that rectifies the ways of the failing stores featured in Mary’s TV shows. So how did Mary go from retail and creative communications to TV? “I was invited onto the Richard and Judy ‘This Morning’ show and I got spotted by television producer Patricia Llewellyn.”

When it comes to what makes her tick however Mary is quick to respond - her work that unites communities, being a voice for local independents and her ‘Living & Giving’ shops in support of Save the Children charity make her proud. She cites Julie Walters, Jude Kelly and Kirsty Young as strong women that she finds inspirational. In fact it was her interview with Kirsty Young on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that opened up Mary’s memories and emotions about her past. After talking to her partner she decided to write down little vignettes about her past and the result is ‘Shop Girl.’

Mary’s memoir makes for an insightful and emotive read, a taste of the first two decades of her life that essentially shaped her into the woman that she is today. I was left wanting to know more about her climb up the Harvey Nichols ladder and breaking out to start her own PR and marketing company, but maybe that’s another book entirely.

In the meantime, Mary chic as ever with a haircut as sharp as her wit is asked by an individual in the audience, “If she could re-brand any high street store which would it be?’

Without hesitation she responds: “M&Sit is a British institution that is being wrongly run. I think it could be extraordinary and needs a woman at the top. I really think it needs that female touch.” With that the audience undoubtedly agree as they break out in applause. 

Mary Portas ‘Shop Girl’ A Memoir £16.99

By JoJo Iles

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