Mary Portas and the reality of having a High Street shop!


So BIS has asked Mary Portas to review the situation with our dying high streets.

I for one am delighted.

I am aghast that the Conservatives have engaged someone who actually seems to know what she’s talking about, doesn’t fit the Eton, canape-head mould and kicks retail ass. And indeed, ten out of ten for them having the confidence, I just hope they have the gumption to deliver on her findings.

Being on the high street back in 1996 was hard enough but now, I fear for shop-keepers’ sanity. By the time I shut up my darling shop, Guapa, I looked like a drug addict… eyes were sunken, my skin grey, my hair greasy and my mental state at rock bottom. I was real Queen of Shops fodder. I was Mary Portas’ nightmare and I love her shows because I see now how wrong I was and how right I want to be in any future venture.

It had  taken me about a year to finally admit defeat, to lose what I saw as all my self pride and admit that this was not going to work. I was fighting a losing battle and no matter how lovely my loyal customer base, they weren’t enough to sustain a shop with one sole employee.

I seldom took a day off, that would mean closing the shop. And I was constantly indebted to my parents. If they weren’t allowing me to live in their house rent-free, then they were covering me for a Saturday afternoon off with my boyfriend. My mother would bring her sewing down midweek sometimes and run things while I went to the doctor’s, dentist’s or attended a trade fair.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…that’s absolutely sure, so I am a little bit jealous to hear, now, that Mary Portas is undertaking this review….but maybe her results will welcome me back to the High Street and newroomsonline can find its physical presence! If nothing else it would mean I can finally get hold of the stock I’ve been desperate for from those weirdos who still refuse to deal with online only outlets! Freaks.

The cynic within says this will be a very Home Counties based research document, in which case anyone north of Bedford is stuffed.

I’m not sure what she’ll unearth but can I just mention a few things;

1. Double yellow lines – the High Street death knell.

Where people can park a car free of charge then traffic will always pass and not use the bypasses. Yes, it might lead to a bit of congestion, a spot of horn blowing but so many more people notice the shops in these places – and come back.

2. Water Rates

When I had the shop I boiled the kettle twice a day and flushed the loo once. My water rates were exorbitant. Where I lived, by contrast, a family of four could bathe all day, run a dishwasher, a washing machine, water the garden and generally just pour water down the drain all day long for a fraction of the price. I get it….I did watch The Street That Cut Everything last night. I know that monies paid in one place go towards greater services elsewhere but a sense of perspective might be nice. I felt completely conned.

3. Town Planning, Highways and other jobsworths

I am sure we are not the only city whose dwellers are exasperated with plans for new roads and buildings, who gets permission to move in and who doesn’t. Local folklore, and I say that as I have no proof, says that once upon a time when we had not a single American burger chain, a local independent burger man put in a request to open on the High Street and was turned down, many years in a row. Out of nowhere, the certain burger chain in question appeared….then a second…then a third and now we have four. Independent guy went out of business….yet he had an open BBQ and the best relishes on the planet – his burgers oozed healthy eating and he was always busy #fact.

The ring road in effect killed one half of the busiest shopping street we have, as I see it. You might as well make it a cul de sac. It’s now home to more pubs, take-aways and buttie shops than you can shake a stick at… shop was there way back when, and we had a rat problem that long ago – I dread to think what the situation is like now.

Preston aims to attract John Lewis, as I have mentioned before. We also look forward to having a Waitrose. Same family but all good….and the town seems to have gone all out to keep them interested, indeed with a promise to level our bus station into the equation – hmm great….NOT.

The talk is that Waitrose will reside on an out of town shopping site just south of the Ribble…….not what I would call Waitrose’s demographic by a long chalk but I have proved I know nothing about selling on the High Street by crashing out of business from there 15 years ago.

John Lewis will, by all accounts reside on the patch of land where our bus station currently enjoys 2nd biggest in the world status. We have so few claims to fame that I’d like to keep this one, please. I’d like to see John Lewis smack bang in the city centre! As it is, it will sit in its retail ivory tower, doubtless, surrounded by the obligatory chains Zara, Caffe Nero, Mango, Starbucks, Karen Millen, Costa Coffee, Nando’s, Warehouse, Fat Face etc etc…….but I’d like to see the independent shops. I’d like to see me there, me and a whole staff wearing newrooms T-shirts, expertly wrapping surprising little luxuries for its clientele, maybe with its own inhouse coffee bar.

I do see the cash injection a city can expect to receive if it can attract big names to its streets. My beef is that we don’t seem to be attracting to our city centre but to the periphery. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Deepdale Retail Centre, the Capitol Centre or the bus station site…..none of these will inject life into a city centre….they’re just too far out. The Council will doubtless argue that John Lewis will bring folk to Preston from Blackpool, Blackburn, Lancaster and beyond but I counter that with, John Lewis will attract people to John Lewis! How many folk drive to John Lewis at Cheadle and then bob into Cheadle centre itself for a mooch of the shops? I’d be interested to know.

I’d love Mary Portas to do a special feature on Preston. I do think we’re a breed apart. Why can’t we sustain a Gap yet can entertain a John Lewis? We can build a National Football Museum but we then give it to Manchester…not to be housed within one of their globally known stadia but within what was once a funky gallery space.

I don’t know the answer but I’d love to hear Mary Portas‘ solutions, the sooner the better please.


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