Mary Portas, the retail expert and former government advisor, issued a forthright verdict on the lack of leadership in Downing Street during the cost-of-living crisis, as new research revealed high street businesses see inflation as a bigger threat than Covid.
“We’ve just got a sh*t show going on now with central government,” she told the Standard.
“We’re absolutely on hold at the biggest proper crisis these businesses see. We are talking about inflation. We’ve got a couple of candidates vying to be the next prime minister. I find it ridiculous. Look what we did during Covid which helped with the crisis. This is not that much different.”
Portas was speaking as the latest Retail Trend Report produced by Ankorstore -- a wholesaler she works with that helps small shops achieve scale and maximise their buying power -- found that 92% of retailers think the British high street is suffering. The cost-of-living crisis and inflation was seen as a threat by 74% of respondents, while only 45% thought Covid still represents a problem.
The popularity of buying locally surged during the pandemic and survived the end of lockdowns. Ankorstore’s research found two-thirds of retailers said customers remain keen to shop within their home areas.
Portas, who was an advisor to David Cameron’s government, says a sense of community is vital for retailers to thrive as spending power is constrained. Her bid to help high streets in 2012 included Croydon and Dartford. It came in different times for the economy. Inflation in London’s Olympic year was at just over 2%. It’s now over 10%.
Her time advising government ended without many of her recommendations -- including free parking -- being taken up, and eventually, fewer open shops in some locations. She is now highlighting the importance of “walkabilty”, so urban professionals can shop on foot in 15 minutes. She backs the private sector to drive the change.
“We are now going into an era with a much greater understanding of how we are living. People are asking ‘how much do I need, how much do I spend, what are the values that are important to me?’ They are thinking local, about social infrastructure and building back our communities. That is what canny businesses understand.”
The research also found shoppers are looking for unique products they can’t find online. Ankorstore found people know what they want. Independent supermarkets top the list, followed by craft and clothing boutiques.
Portas says a sense of community and the right policy mix will help high streets beat inflation. She repeated her advocacy, from her government time, for lower rents, telling the Standard there should be “peppercorn rates” for key tenants.
“We saw during Covid a new way of working, because we realised we were all in this together. Individualistic, siloed operations just went by-the-by. People want to see greater collaboration. The mayor of London has done a big review on high streets and we are waking up to the fact that we are, truly, interconnected.”