Reflections on Mary Queen of Shops

Mary PortasI’m not sure if you’ve discovered this programme, but these one hour specials on BBC2 are compelling viewing and provide some terrific insights into business practice (good and bad). Retail guru Mary Portas, the woman credited with transforming the fortunes of Harvey Nichols, is drafted in to revitalise a variety of failing businesses.

This series focuses on the small, independent high street businesses who are disappearing at an alarming rate in the face of competition from the retailing giants. So far she’s turned her attention to a bakery, village store and a greengrocers, all fascinating stories with what appears to be a happy outcome (although one wonders how these stores will be faring in a year’s time, without the Portas touch).

What impressed me was the way Mary challenged these business owners to properly define what they were offering (none was able to). The temptation is to try to please everyone, never turning away business. In the case of the Dorset village store in Episode 2, the two Londoners who’d taken over the shop ended up stocking 4000 lines, their intention being to fulfil every conceivable request by the locals. Paradoxically, when Portas asked the villagers why they avoided shopping there, their response was, “They just don’t stock what we want”!

The answer: strip out most of the stock and start defining your business. What can you offer that the supermarkets can’t? What about fresh, local produce? The supermarkets are constrained by centralised buying rules and their Achilles Heel is their impersonal nature and restrictions on using local suppliers. Mary identified a potential point of difference for the small independent store, something that plays on the ‘local loyalty’ factor, a key consideration in a localised market like Corfe Castle. Get the villagers involved – as suppliers, as helpers, as consumers – and you hit the supermarket giants where it hurts.

So often the key to success in a business is to identify what you’re NOT going to be. It’s through narrowly defining your niche, and servicing it incredibly well (and with confidence) that you’re able to develop a following and really prosper.

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