Mary Portas interview for What Britain Bought in 2016
TX 8pm, Wed 28 Dec, Channel 4
2016 has been an extraordinary year in many respects. Has it been extraordinary in the retail sector?
I think that’s a big word to use. Everything happens organically. I don’t think it’s anything like as dramatic as what’s happened in the political world. It’s not extraordinary, but I think there’s been a greater stability and cohesion, and there’s been a real move towards much better retailing.
Better in what sense?
I think the consumer now has so much choice. Everything is completely and utterly visible, so you can research online, you can buy what you want when you want, you can work out the best value places. So what’s happened on the back of that is that competition’s become much greater, and retailers are having to create really extraordinary experiences, and give really good customer service and great innovation in order to keep customers. And the people who can’t keep up retail-wise won’t be around.
What can you tell about a nation from its shopping habits?
You can tell a lot of things – what we buy says an awful lot about us, because it shows how we live. And what we’re feeling – a mood of a nation can be judged through that. You can see people, on the back of the Olympics, going online and buying fitness gear. There is a very direct correlation. And there’s a real trend towards the understanding of wellbeing, and looking after yourself, not just through exercise but what you eat, and getting a greater balance in life. You can see that coming through – people are buying less stuff, and more experiences that feed the soul. That’s a really big shift from ten years ago.
The Olympic effect you speak of – is that why sales of speedos went through the roof?
Yeah, because of the swimming. Men no aren’t embarrassed by wearing the budgie-smuggler. We might not want it back, but I’m afraid it is.
Has the way we shop, with the advent of the internet, changed what we buy, as well as how we buy it?
Yes. We’re buying more stuff to do with our home, and we’re spending more on food and on eating out, and less on fashion. That’s a big shift.
Rather ambitiously, last year, your show predicted that Brussels Sprouts would be big this year. And they actually have been, haven’t they? Why is that?
They’ve been huge. I think the New Scientist is behind that. The success of Kale was massive – we’re talking about a product that wasn’t even on our shelves three or four years ago. And it became this major superfood. So the New Scientist decided to do some research into superfoods, and found out that of the group of green, leafy vegetables, Brussel s Sprouts are the best superfood. So chefs and health gurus started using them in cooking. So now a Brussels Sprout really is not just for Christmas, it’s for life.
Do you think Brexit has had an effect on what people bought?
That’s an interesting question. People went out and spent after it. That was because of the pound – there was the big worry the pound would drop badly, so all the retailers had sales.
Was there anything that really surprised you about the nation’s shopping habits in 2016?
I think its back to the Speedos. Why would you want to get that back? What the hell? Who’d want to put those on? So that was the biggest shock for me. Last year it was the golden pineapple, those dodgy ice buckets. I was really surprised by that – such bad taste.