In 2012 I was reading a trade magazine which talked about Retail Independents Day. Mary Portas was quoted in support of this idea. It aimed to increase awareness of the independent businesses that are vital to the economy and which bring an individuality to each town and city in the country. Salisbury Independents group was subsequently formed and this year we sponsored the visit of Mary Portas to the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival.
Mary is recognised as the UK’s foremost authority on retail. Her continued advocacy of our High Streets led to her receiving a commission from the Government to research The Portas Review. Mary’s work has been a catalyst for community regeneration and the re-visioning of high streets across the country. She has published three books, Windows: The Art of Retail Display, How to Shop and Shop Girl, a memoir of her early years.
Shop Girl is a page turning mix of nostalgic reminiscences of a 1970’s childhood, family tragedy and heartache. It has an inspirational thread of the self belief and steel will that transformed Mary from child to talented window dresser to business woman, government adviser and television personality.
On the day of her Salisbury interview about her life and work Mary came across as warm and funny, a great character fizzing with ideas. It was an uplifting hour concentrating on family, friends and best business practice. After the talk Mary spent ages chatting, signing books and posing for selfies but best of all I came away with some business advice.
From the ‘Queen of Shops’ programmes I had already learnt that Mary believes that indie retailers should play to their strengths. Competing with John Lewis, Amazon or TK Maxx can’t be on their terms, it has to be on your own. We all have to be better at what we do. As small independent businesses we have to trust ourselves, believe in our expertise and differentiate ourselves. We can do this through fabulous staff and great customer service, interesting products and imaginative displays – the whole shopping experience.
Mary gave me two tips. The first was to work closely and collaboratively with other businesses. This is so much easier now that we have an Independents group and a social media presence. The other was to ask the advice of a ‘critical friend’, someone who can see the business with fresh eyes. Since we revamped Casa Fina and refocused the product mix, returning to our interiors roots but introducing antique and vintage pieces we have received many compliments. We welcome critical feedback too. We are here for you, the consumer and if you think we could do better then let us know.