A quick chat with Mary Portas

We may be a nation of shopkeepers, but Mary Portas reckons the British have a lot to learn when it comes to customer service in her new series…

The shopping guru has long banged the drum for good service through her retail consultancy Yellowdoor, her Daily Telegraph review column Shop! and her BBC2 series Mary, Queen of Shops, and now she is planning to move on her crusade a stage further with a new series for Channel 4.

Mary Portas: Secret Shopper (Wednesday, 19 January, 9pm) will see her don a disguise to go undercover on Britain’s high streets, before showing four of the worst offenders in the service stakes how they can improve the shopping experience for their customers.

TV&Satellite Week magazine caught up with her to find out more…

We are one of the worst countries in the world for customer service… Shopping has become an ordeal, and each of the places I’ve looked at provides bad service in a different way. In one, they might be giving you the hard sell, while in another you could be lying dead on the floor and they would ignore you. Or the environment might be shabby and dirty, or the assistants not know anything about what they’re selling.

The first programme in my new series sees me visit me a furniture store in Rotherham… A sofa is one of the most expensive purchases you make for the home, but have you seen how shabby and disgusting these places are? The staff are bonus-led, and it’s all about the hard sell and ‘deals’ – interest-free credit, bank holiday sale, five-year guarantee – until you read the small print. I changed the whole way they connected with the consumer, and created beautiful room sets and put in ‘inspiration stations’.

I also visit a fashion chain as part of the series… Fashion is the shopping experience that I hate the most. No one speaks to you and it’s just hideous – slow, apathetic service, and the queues are 20-deep. The business model is to get the stock out onto the shop floor as quickly as possible, and it’s simply a bun-fight. I looked at setting up a new system in the fitting rooms and on the shop floor, and at how you could speed up the whole process of shopping there.

The people on the shop floor are disenfranchised… Nobody really cares about them, or is training them, and yet they are the ones who interface with the customer. It’s something about the culture in this country. If you look at, say, waiters working in Italy, for them it’s a career for life. It’s the same in retail in America, but shop assistants here just don’t see their jobs in that way.

One of my biggest gripes when shopping is the lack of common courtesy… The total sullenness is horrible. In my local Tesco Metro, the only thing they say to you throughout the whole transaction is: ‘Clubcard?’ They don’t even tell you the price – you’re supposed to just look at the till and then stick your card in the machine. Conversation has gone out of the window completely.

We are in danger of becoming a nation that only buys online… That would be tragic. If we accept the mediocrity of the huge chains and people not knowing enough and caring enough, we will lose all the small shops – and that has a massive cultural effect on the community.

If it’s done brilliantly, retail can make a day at the shops one of the most exciting, fun things you can do… Why can’t we have more of that? I refuse to let the high street’s fat cats carry on making serious amounts of money out of us without hearing the voice of the consumer.