Mary Portas is the turnaround queen of retail. She reversed the fortunes of Harvey Nichols in the early nineties, re-establishing the brand as a leading fashion player. Her retail agency Yellowdoor is one of the most respected experts in the sector, creating campaigns for the likes of Clarks, Louis Vuitton, Oasis, Swarovski, Dunhill, Boden, Thomas Pink and Westfield London.
Now, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are hoping that the outspoken entrepreneur will turn her attentions to a much larger project: saving the UK high street.
Portas' appointment couldn't come too soon. Earlier this week, the Ernst & Young ITEM Club released some dire predictions for the future of offline retailers. Its special report forecasts reduced consumer spending and increased competition: salt in the wound of an already limping and ravaged high street economy.
"The squeeze on household budgets is only going to intensify this year, as the gap between high inflation and subdued wage growth continues to widen and we experience a second consecutive year of declining disposable incomes," says Andrew Goodwin, senior economic advisor to the Ernst & Young ITEM Club. "It will be 2013 before consumers are really able to start enjoying the recovery.
"However even then consumers are going to be much more cautious in their spending habits, particularly once interest rates have started to rise and mortgage and debt payments spiral. Rather than splashing their cash, we're expecting to see consumers keeping a firm grip on their purse strings and continuing to pay back their debt."
Steve Wilkinson, head of consumer products at Ernst & Young, adds: "Shoppers are going to be a lot savvier about when, where and how they shop. They are becoming more price aware and so we'll be increasingly using comparison websites to find the best deals. They'll also be shopping more often, but spending less on each visit, and will be scouring the shelves for special offers and promotional items.
"In a bid to appear to offer the best value for money, it's likely that retailers will continue with the deep discounting of iconic brands. This will be a major headache for brand owners, whose margins will be under pressure and who won't want to see their products being devalued through heavy promotions in the supermarket price wars."
High street retailers are already sinking in the quicksand. Total retail spending in town centres fell to 42% last year from just under 50% in 2000.
In contrast, vast shopping centres like Bluewater have seen a spike. 'Destination-shoppers' are taking advantage of the easy parking and the sheer density of retail brands in these shopping 'villages': they have seen a 11.5% increase in revenue from 2005 to 2010.
Online retailers have also taken a Jaws-sized bite out of the high street. A report from the Office of National Statistics shows that online sales are up nearly 14% on last year.
This is the backdrop to Mary Portas' mission. She has not only been drafted in to stem the decline of the Great British high street, she has been tasked with developing more diverse high streets by increasing the number of small and independent retailers selling their wares in local town centres. No small ask.
Portas has turned to the great British public to help her fulfil her mission. A plea on her website reads:
"I am calling on business, local authorities and shoppers to contribute their ideas on how we can halt this decline in its tracks and create town centres that we can all be proud of.
"If you've got something to say about the state of our high streets - be it an observation, insight, initiative or idea - click here to read through other peoples' comments and to add your own contribution to the debate."
Check out Mary Portas' video explaining her objectives for the
high street review: