Mary Portas: ‘High street’s future will be localism, not big brands’

Local community spaces combined with ‘some retail’ will be the high street’s destiny according to the ‘queen of shops’, who says retail brands must provide bespoke experiences in each location.

Brands are set to suffer a “massive headache” in retail and marketing, according to Mary Portas, founder of fashion and retail consultancy Portas, as she claims the future of the high street will be defined by highly individual community spaces while retail “will become completely experiential”.

Speaking as part of a panel debate hosted by Grazia magazine at Advertising Week Europe yesterday (25 March), she argued that town centres’ shopping districts will be forced to transform themselves into destinations for socialising and entertainment with a focus on “service and specialism”, and that approaches to marketing must become “more bespoke – no longer a broad brush stroke”.

Portas, who in 2011 authored an independent review of high street retail commissioned by the coalition Government, claimed that this vision of the future has been held back by big retailers that have sucked economic growth away from towns towards of out-of-town shopping centres.

“They had power and the ear of the lobby press [covering parliament] and they just completely crushed it,” she said.

She blamed both the previous and current Governments for allowing high streets to deteriorate through failing to reform planning regulations for large retail sites, causing a “social problem” with people having nowhere to go in their home towns.

This trend is set to be reversed by consumers’ preference to shop “little, often and local”, Portas said, with online retail reducing the convenience of out-of-town superstores.

“Local government will start to connect properly with communities and less will come from centralism,” she argued, because people have “lost faith” in central government’s ability to regenerate their areas.

She gave hope to brands that make an effort to cater to individual communities at a local level, but gave Harris + Hoole as an example of how being part-owned by Tesco gives the impression that a big corporation is what drives the coffee shop brand rather than local needs.

“Clever brands in the future will be genuinely doing that,” she said.

The Ad Week panel’s main topic was the place of feminism in business and politics, and Portas said that her first realisation of the importance of feminism was while she was the sole female executive on the board of department store Harvey Nichols, during which time her voice was often seen as “emotional” rather than “rational and logical”.

“I was confronted with a business that was targeting women but was primarily made up of men,” she stated, adding that she has no desire to go into politics because it too is set up to favour men’s more aggressive style of discourse.