If it’s car-crash TV that you seek, then the latest series of BBC1’s The Apprentice has probably got you glued to the box every Wednesday evening, agreeing or disagreeing with Sir Alan about the management talents of those appearing in his “boardroom”.
It’s getting close to the denouement now, which leaves reality TV addicts with a bit of a problem. What next? Well, as sure as a would-be apprentice on The Apprentice is determined to give 150 per cent, the next tranche of real-life telly will hove into view, this time in the shape of visual merchandising guru Mary Portas assuming her alter ego as Mary Queen of Shops.
This is the second series and it is a measure both of the success of the show’s first run and the pent-up frustration of the UK’s army of small shopkeepers that there were 4,500 applications for the six stores that receive a Portas makeover. And, as in the last series, the criteria are straightforward. To appear on Mary Queen of Shops, a business has to have been loss-making for a while and to be determined to do something about it.
Portas herself has few illusions about why small boutique owners queue up for her televised advice in quite the way they do. “You realise that, for some of them, you really are their last hope and the first thing you ask when looking at a shop is whether it has the potential to do anything,” she says. “When I went into this, what I didn’t realise was that I would end up being a kind of psychologist.”
She is realistic about what is possible. She says: “I can’t do anything about the rents that they’re up against. At the moment, it really is so difficult to make a business profitable.” She adds that, for small businesses, the chances of making it into some of the higher-profile schemes are negligible unless some of the larger developers provide a leg-up in the form of extensive subsidies. Westfield is following this kind of path in west London.
Portas’s new series kicks off in Ascot, proving, if nothing else, that even in highly affluent Berkshire towns, the streets are not necessarily paved with gold. Ascot is home to a boutique called Blinkz, which caters for the fuller-figured woman and whose owner, Amanda Collins, is a trim size 10. Collins appears not to have a great deal of time for the people coming into her shop, all of whom are larger that she is.
The store stocks unappealing clothes and, perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing is selling. Enter Portas, who whisks Collins off to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of upcoming trends as seen by fashion magazine Marie Claire.
This is about providing inspiration for businesses where the owner is hanging on by their nails and showing them how all may not be lost. “They’re not greedy for wealth: they just want to survive,” says Portas. “They want their confidence back.”
So what chance is there of success for these hapless store owners? Portas says that she has kept track of the fortunes of the stores featured in the initial series and things appear to have gone well.
She notes that, from a shopper perspective, the rationale for visiting a boutique is somewhat different to that of the chain store shopper. “Most women who go to a seasonal boutique want service and they want something different. Service is something that we’re losing in this country.” Reflecting on the big chains, she says: “Gap does service brilliantly and I think that people will come back because of that.”
The new series begins on BBC2 at 9pm on June 9. As a lesson in what is possible on a very modest budget, when compared with the sizable sums that are lavished on large shops, it should make compelling viewing.
The only question that remains unanswered is why a thin woman ended up running a store for customers who she appears to despise? The reasons why people end up in particular niche businesses are always difficult to fathom.