Mary Portas: Secret Shopper

Anyone who’s ever shopped at Primark knows that the experience can be a bit of a chore. I myself once spent a very long time queuing in the Glasgow branch. So long, in fact, that I struck up a brief but ultimately doomed relationship with one of the other queue-denizens and bore his child.

I called the baby ‘Khaki Harem-Pant’ in honour of the item I was trying to buy at the time.

Sadly, little Khaki set the alarm off on our way out, so I had to leave him behind. He’s ok though. The last piece of news I received was that he’d started to fashion nests out of £2 sleeveless t-shirts and learned to live on the Wotsits dropped by browsing shoppers.

They’re expecting him to become Store Manager in a few years.

So yes, I’ve endured my share of troublesome budget shopping experiences, but at no point did I ever stop and think: ‘Do you know what? Someone should really run an evangelical telly campaign to improve customer service in shops, reduce queues in changing room facilities and force the disgruntled and underpaid staff to smile’.

Which, clearly, is why I’m not a ‘leading retail marketing consultant’ like self-styled Queen of Shops, Mary Portas. She seems to see the poor customer service on the High Street as the biggest social ill of our time, as deserving of public attention as – say-the nutritional qualities of school meals.

In last night’s episode, she launched an assault on what she calls ‘fast fashion’- the high street chains like Top Shop, New Look etc. who she accuses of putting profit before the shopper experience. To prove how gosh-darned dreadful it all is, she dresses like ‘one of the public’ (which, incidentally, she is) and sets out to do some undercover shopping.

Picking a busy Saturday afternoon- when anyone with an ounce of sense knows to avoid the town centre like the plague lest they’re trampled by hyperactive 17 year-olds shopping for neon mini-dresses – she ventures into packed shops only to find (spoiler alert!) that they’ve got very long queues at the cash desk.

No way!

Mary is also annoyed by the fact that the rushed staff are so busy trying to serve the army of shoppers to the best of their ability that they’re unable to find time to lead her around the shop helping her look for items like Guide Dogs for the Unobservant.

Another gripe: they’re not smiling enough, or welcoming people to the store. In fact, some even seem a tad glum. It’s almost as if working as a shop assistant in Top Shop isn’t their idea of a dream job.

I like to think that, had Mary been dropped into Victorian London, she’d have been similarly aghast at the sight of small children wandering the streets selling matches, flowers etc.

“This is terrible. They’re barely smiling at all. They all need extensive customer service training. I shall organise a campaign to make sure no one ever receives a surly greeting from a semi-frozen 10 year old chimney-sweep again.”

In order to reverse this trend, Portas picks a small but growing ‘young fashion’ chain (read: unashamed tack hive) called Pilot. The managing director Chris looks like a mistreated terrier and is clearly happy to trade his shop staff’s dignity for the chance at a bit of free publicity. They’re secretly filmed griping away about how bored they are, how dire their job is and how they feel like they’re going to be sick on themselves out of a sense of sheer, bone-crushing ennui. Or words to that effect.

After ‘raising their morale’ by getting them to work in a fast food joint for half a day, Mary unveils her plan to improve the customer experience: painting the changing room pink, making it look a bit like a catwalk and writing ‘Kylie’, ‘Lady Gaga’ etc… over each cubicle door in an attempt to make the punters feel a bit more glamorous.

In case you’re thinking ‘Hmm, I feel like I’ve seen that idea somewhere before’, you have. It’s the same idea as the celeb-monikered toilet stalls in Vue Cinemas (personally, I like to wee in Michelle Pfeiffer).

She also trains the shop assistants to smile a bit more and introduces a system where customers can pay for their purchases at a counter in the changing room. When Chris tentatively agrees to roll it out to all 43 shops across the UK, Portas celebrates as if she’d just personally solved the crisis in the Middle East.

It was an utterly trite and ultimately pointless publicity exercise. As an issue, I’d hazard a guess that a lack of general store tidiness at peak times seems to be a price that we’re all fairly willing to pay for cheap fashion.

In fact, I can think of approximately a hundred issues more deserving of a hectoring TV campaign: the dire conditions of factory workers in the developing countries that actually churn out these cheap clothes, perhaps. Or possibly the rubbish, ‘McJob’ style low wages in high street shops that keep the staff barely above the poverty line.

Instead, we’re treated to Mary Portas screwing her face up over the fact that workers in Zara don’t kowtow when you pop in to look for a cheap jumper and let you wipe your feet on them when you leave.

Maybe she should just stick to Harvey Nicks in future. Or possibly shop online – I’ve always had unhesitatingly friendly service from my Amazon shopping basket.


About Hilary Wardle
Hilary is a freelance journalist and copywriter who writes for a wide range of websites, magazines and newspapers, including Buzzfeed, MSN, The Poke, Chortle, the Guardian and the Independent. She specialises in arts and entertainment, comedy, video games and viral content. Contact her at

3 Responses to Mary Portas: Secret Shopper

  1. Nick Tann says:

    Ahhh shame, I foolishly thought this might be good…rats!

    • ladyribenaberet says:

      Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Although next week’s episode sees her take on snake oil DFS salesmen, so that could be better.

  2. ladyribenaberet says:

    I quite like rummaging around in Primark. It’s so hard to find what you want that the whole thing becomes a sort of wonderful treasure hunt, and you feel a sense of almost mystical joy when you find a bearable jumper or other not-entirely-dreadful piece of clothing.

    Sometimes I dress as Lara Croft and pretend the ballet pump I’ve just unearthed is a 17th Century Qing Dynasty chalice.


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