Mary Portas tells Co-op Congress how it is

This weekend I went to my first Co-operative Congress, held at the start of Co-operatives Fortnight. One of the draws was a Friday night session with Mary Portas. Not having a TV, my knowledge of Portas is limited. I had never seen her programme, nor heard her talk. But I was aware that she was a big champion of local shops and independent businesses so I was interested to hear what she had to say.

I’m lucky in where I live. I have a local high street and many small independent shops within walking distance of my house. Yet I know that these days this is the exception rather than the norm. The big supermarkets and chain stores have resulted in most of the UK’s towns turning into what NEF describes as “clone towns”. Worse than this, the growth of out-of-town shopping centres have seen clone towns turning into ghost towns, where shops are closing down altogether. In the small Welsh village where my in-laws live, all shopping is now done (by car) at the nearest Tesco hypermarket. The village once had its own baker, newsagent and butcher. Now it has none of those things.

What’s happened in this village has happened all over the country. As Portas puts it in her passionate and emphatic opening sentences: “We’ve sacrificed communities for convenience”.  The business model of buying from different local shops went out of favour in the UK, but in moving away from this, we’ve sacrificed our local communities, she says.

One of Portas’s key messages to independent shops is that this in itself is not enough. “People won’t buy from businesses just because it’s doing ‘good’” she says. “You have to give them what they want”.  My local deli has it right. It sells quality bread, has a huge choice, and even at its busiest, the staff are friendly and take the time to talk to you. It offers the two things that Portas says consumers want: good quality products, and what she calls “people connectivity”. We want to connect more, she says. People want and crave social contact, and local independent shops can do that. This means that small shops don’t need to compete with the out-of-town shopping centres as they are offering something different – social contact and community.

To survive, Portas suggests that high streets should not be about individual shops any more, but about high street local shops acting as one.  She doesn’t elaborate about what this might mean in practice, but I imagine that schemes such as Tagpassiton and local currency such as the Brixton Pound might be what she means.

The Plunkett Foundation supports local people taking over their local shops, and community-owned ventures are springing up around the country. The question posed to Portas was around how they can adapt turning from customer into retailer, often with little business experience. Portas has three key points:

1.      “Deliver what the internet and big stores can’t do, and that’s service” she says. “Connect with local people, know your customers”. The fact that this has been mentioned a number of times already does not lessen its importance.

2.    “Know what you’re selling and why”.  For me, one of the pleasures of buying from farmers’ markets and delis is that the people who are selling to me are the experts in what they’re selling. They can help, offer advice or just tell the story behind their cheese.

3.    Make sure that the shopping experience is vibrant and fun.

Another question is posed. Does Portas think that major chains and independents can live in harmony? Surprisingly, (and this is where I’m not so sure), she thinks that they can. “We’ll never get rid of the big multinationals” she points out, “so we need to re-educate consumers about real value”. She thinks that the big chains can act as magnets, bringing more people in back to town centres and high streets.

But what about the fact that in many ethical and small businesses, the cost of the product is higher, Becky from WhoMadeYourPants asks. “Tell your story” advises Portas. “You have a story that’s authentic and inspiring – people will pay a premium for that” she thinks. As long as the product can compete in quality, you don’t have to compete with price. You CAN’T she says. Again, she comes back to the importance of education. “We can’t compete with the big companies” she emphasises, “so we need to tell our stories and to get the message out.”  I agree and it’s what I frequently said when working for Ethical Consumer. Low priced products do come at a cost. It’s just that this cost is hidden. Whether sacrificing quality, animal welfare, the working conditions for the people producing the product, or the environment, there will always be a cost when something is produced very cheaply.

Mary Portas isn’t really saying very much that’s new. But she is saying it loudly, to a wider audience, and at a time when people ARE thinking more about how they shop, where they shop, and whether they shop at all. Her key message is repeated again and again and again: For small independent shops to survive, they need to offer quality products and quality service.  Our wish to reconnect and interact with people is too strong to see them disappear altogether. Let’s hope that she’s right.


Manchester: Didsbury Life & Chorlton Life  promote local independent shops through their websites.

Manchester markets: Farmers’ markets and local markets are springing up all round Manchester.

Tagpassiton is a loyalty scheme for local communities. Hundreds of independent businesses have joined together across the North West, offering cardholders a huge range of exclusive discounts.

Local Currencies are complementary currencies, working alongside pounds sterling, for use by independent local shops & traders. They include the Brixton Pound, the Lewes Pound, and the Calderdale Favour.

About Ruth Rosselson

I am a writer, researcher and consultant with over 14 years experience of writing about ethical and environmental issues. I specialise in writing copy for NGOs, charities, social enterprises and the co-operative movement.
This entry was posted in Co-operatives, Environment, independent shops, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Mary Portas tells Co-op Congress how it is

  1. Pingback: Co-operatives Fortnight and Congress 2011 (#coops14 and #cc11) | Software Cooperative News

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