This week the third series of Mary Portas’ latest “rescue” show began. I like Mary. She’s prickly, opinionated and occasionally has ideas which seem like they might plunge shop-owners into further financial chaos, but this is the only one of the plethora of “save business owners from a dire situation” TV programmes that I will watch. In my day job I’m often asked if I watch shows like “The Hotel Inspector” – never in a million years, but there’s something about Mary that gets me tuning in. I’ve watched her transform fashion outlets, set up a knicker factory, revamp charity shops and on this Channel 4 show the focus is on customer service and giving the customers what they really want, rather than what the business owner is adamant that they should have.
Mary gets a fair bit of criticism in the popular press. Is it the Daily Mail that likes to point out the number of businesses that have gone to the wall in the months/years after she has intervened? But that’s the nature of things for us small business owners. It is a tough world out there. In the vast majority of cases I’m sure she has delayed the inevitable. I’m also grateful to her as one of her shows featured a business that I had considered purchasing and after not pursuing it I encountered a case of the “What ifs”. In the gap between selling my Brighton guest house and finding my current one on the Isle Of Wight I contemplated a grocers in Dorset. The people who eventually bought it struggled and it made for a chilling, if ultimate salutary viewing experience for me as I realised that had we made that purchase we would have been in exactly the same position as the frustrated owners on the show.
In this episode it was two shops in Cranleigh, Surrey, separated by an Indian restaurant and run by the same couple. One was a cluttered dressmakers shop, the other a recently-opened but money-haemorraghing bridal shop. It featured a classic moment of between the fingers-viewing as Mary, whilst looking at a collection of garish dresses the proprietors had purchased in Las Vegas, asked whether there were any drag queens or transsexuals in the village who might buy one, with it eventually dawning on her that she was actually addressing this to one, Graham, the husband of shop-owner Janet. This was also news to two lady shop assistants. In the hands of another presenter this faux-pas could have looked staged but seeing the usually politically correct but mortified Mary hiding out in the changing rooms after realising what she had done was a moment of brilliant television.
Often the shop-owners chosen to take part in these programmes deserve what they get with an outmoded, obstinate view of their products and a scant regard for customer service but Graham and Janet had just taken on more than they could chew with lots of unsold stock. Mary, on her way to the establishment, views footage from a secret camera. Normally she is enraged by sloppy service but in this case became doubled up with laughter by primitive walkie-talkie communication between the two shops and Janet’s determination to get her cheese and coleslaw sandwich whilst pinning up a customer’s dress.
There’s a lot of money to be made in bridal wear, apparently, but Janet and Graham just were not making it. The mark-ups for this type of item do seem to be incredibly high. You would not need to be selling that many wedding dresses a year to be nicely in profit and what is important with this kind of high-end selling is the customer experience. Despite being already in debt money seemed to be found to follow Mary’s advice almost to the letter and you couldn’t help but applaud their bravery and will them to succeed. Placing the staff in a different business situation is an aspect of this show that doesn’t always work and can feel a little like time-filling especially as Janet begins behaving badly whilst attempting high-level waiting service but that aside this is a well-structured show (with still a little too much recapping after each ad break for my liking). I also like the ways that the confidence Mary begins to instil in the business owners appears to influence their whole lives. It’s always good to watch people begin to blossom. This opener has set a good standard for what promises to be a very watchable series.
Mary Portas Secret Shopper is on Channel 4. This episode can be found on the All-4 Catch Up service. The series continues on Wednesdays at 8pm
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