Mary Portas – shopping with Mary

The Secret Shopper

Having enjoyed Mary Queen of Shops I was looking forward to Mary Portas’ new project Secret Shopper from production company Optomen aired on Channel 4.

In Mary Queen of Shops the focus was on the shop as business and how best for it and its staff to promote itself. For Mary Portas: Secret Shopper the focus was on the customer.

Mary Portas considers that we in the UK have some of the worst service in this area in the world – though I am not sure exactly the basis for that claim – clearly she has not been shopping in every country in the world! She explains in an interview on the Channel 4 website her hopes for the program and the reasons for it.

The program addressed service without a smile and what might be done to change this. It is clear that some customers are pretty awful and the mantra of ‘the Customer is always right’ must be pretty challenging to adhere to in every circumstance. It was also clear that a lot of retail staff are minimum wage with minimum training – by bosses who short-sightedly see training as a cost rather than an investment. The low wages themselves are not going to guarantee staff loyalty and motivation.

On the Channel 4 website there is a lot of feedback about the program – both from customers disgruntled with staff and staff disgruntled with customers.

I always have some suspicion about these programs that the very presence of a television crew and the prospect of an audience of millions may change behaviour while the cameras are on but wonder whether it lasts when the last crew-member has packed away their camera and mic?!  In the fashion make-over shows How To Look Good Naked hosted by Gok Wan and previously What Not to Wear with Trinny & Susannah; and in the restaurant food and service shows Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay and Big Chef Takes on Little Chef with Heston Blumenthal to name just a few and the best of them – this was addressed to some extent in that they would re-visit a year or so down the line to see whether the lessons learnt were still being acted upon.

Like these hosts Mary Portas is a larger-than-life charismatic go-getting figure – very motivational and who clearly has great experience and understanding of retail from both sides of the till.

At four episodes duration the series was not long.  I can understand why in that each episode must involve a lot of production time and work – both in preparation and implementation and then not to spread herself and her team too thinly across other retail outlets.

Perhaps though that is the limitation too of being over-reliant on one charismatic individual.  The aims of this program are big and perhaps require a bigger team to carry out.  But again perhaps it is not the sole role of a television program to do such a thing – rather it acts as a campaigning voice and rallying cry for wider consumer action.

The real success of Mary Portas won’t be a few changes to a few shop branches here and there but a cultural change to shopping service itself – and that is a big ask.  Alongside the program she is running a campaign to celebrate the best and castigate the worst in customer service – not just in shopping retail as I understand but in other areas too such as banking and transport.

Another good series and television idea from Mary Portas.  She left the BBC for Channel 4 for this show – I can well imagine both these channels wrangling over her for her next television opus!