Mary, Queen of crisis

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Last night’s Mary Queen of Shops was fascinating but horrible viewing – like a car crash in slow motion.

Well, watching Mary Portas deal with an intrasigent bakery owner last night was certainly – um – interesting.

You wonder sometimes why these people agree to take part in such programmes if they have no interest at all in actually listening to advice. Perhaps the owner wanted a free refit.

Angela, the owner of the bakery in question, was clearly on the defensive from the outset – one hopes that she has a better side that other people see, but it wasn’t evident in this programme. She stonewalled every idea that Portas had from start to finish and ended by ordering both her and the camera crew out of the shop. All good TV, I’m sure, but hardly what either Portas or the programme makers had in mind. 

Portas may be the kind of rich, successful, intelligent, abrasive woman that some find infuriating, but there’s no question that she knows how to run a business. Her first comment about the bakery was its branding: it looked like a cafe, not a bakery. It also sold hardly any bread but tended to focus on cakes. The profits had halved but the owner clearly didn’t know which products sold the most, nor on which she made the greatest margin.

This is basic business knowledge: you focus on what sells best and gives you the greatest margin, you brand your business so that people know WHAT it’s about, you cut the stuff that doesn’t sell. 

Angela, bless her, also produced products of a clearly amateur status. There is nothing wrong with this – not everybody wants a professional look to their food – but it also struck me that there was a class war going on in this programme. She had clearly watched the influx of wealthy professional people into her Raynes Park location and disliked the lot of them – there was a distinct ‘don’t want any of those focaccia-munchers in here’ attitude about her that was not only unpleasant but also bad for business. 

Having been rude to almost everyone she encountered in this programme, including an award-winning Cotswold baker whom she clearly thought had nothing to teach her (if she mentioned her ’36 years in the business’ once, she said it 20 times),  she did seem to be weakening down the local mums and toddlers group when the yummy mummies gave a resounding ‘Yah’ to the idea of paying £2.50 for a loaf of home-baked.

But she lost the plot entirely when faced with the suggested redesign with its calico-lined wicker baskets and Victorian limewashed signage. I thought it looked fantastic – it’s just like the kind of bakeries we buy from in Brittany – but Angela preferred to stick with her cheap 1970s Chinese takeaway pine look, and it was at this point that she effectively walked off the programme. 

Well, one can only hope that her poor baker, Paul, who was clearly both skilled and enthusiastic, can find himself a new job when Mahers goes tits-up, which it almost certainly will when the new Waitrose opens just down the road from her shop. Not for nothing do supermarkets use Geographical Information Systems that tell them which goods to place in which area – if Waitrose is going to place a new outlet, they already know there’s a (in this case, loaded) customer base ready and waiting. 

The old saying of ‘Get rich, get niche or get out’ never held more true – such a small business as Mahers could never hope to compete with the now-excellent supermarket offerings on price alone – it must specialise to survive. Its old clientele may think they’re loyal, but if profits have halved, they’re obviously nipping down to Asda on the quiet.

The sad thing is that it had such potential as a business – a bustling high street location with ample off-boardwalk seating; an increasingly affluential and discerning local client base; and a skilled, dedicated member of staff on the premises who could bake breads from scratch if only his boss would let him. 

But some people can’t see the wood for the trees. 

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