Baldrick, Portas and the art of irony

While we may never get another series of “Blackadder”, its historical comedy is quite timeless. I was reminded of one line the other day when reading about the success of retail guru Mary Portas’ latest collection of female fashions.

The line from Blackadder goes like this:  Blackadder: “Baldrick, have you no idea what irony is?” Baldrick: “Yes, it’s like goldy and bronzy only it’s made out of iron.”

Yes – Baldrick had it right.  A lot of us use the words irony and ironic, and we usually use them in the right context. But this noun and its adjective are difficult to define.  Most dictionaries offer slightly different interpretations, so the closest I can get is “the opposite of what you’d expect – with a slightly sarcastic twist” (the first bit is dictionary, the last bit is mine).

So, what’s this to do with Mary Portas, and what’s it got to do with car parking?

Let’s start with Mary Portas.  Many of you, whether in the UK or elsewhere, will know of Mary.  A former star retailer with Harvey Nichols, and the founder of a successful branding agency, she captured the imagination of TV views and retail businesses with her series for the BBC and Channel 4 by creating turnaround strategies for stores in distress.  She then pointed her attention at reinventing fashion for midlife women under her own signature brand, and has, most recently – and most controversially – been put in charge of a publicly-funded initiative to breathe new life into Britain’s High Streets. Her report focuses on almost 30 separate recommendations designed to rejuvenate town centres – mainly by seeking to rebalance planning and investment in favour of the traditional retailer.  The report has gone hand-in-hand with the selection of town centres seen as some of the worst examples of decline to act as pilots for the Portas vision.

So last week, my wife announced that, seeing as she was in the market for “some” (eg several) new dresses, she would be viewing Mary Portas’ new collection.  Which traditional “Portas Model High St store” would benefit from your custom? I pondered aloud.  None, she said.  “There’s a concession in a big retailers at one of the huge out of town malls that’s on my way from work and I can park for free there.”

This, more than Baldrick would ever care to consider, could be a perfect definition of irony. The saviour of downtown entices the target shopper to… well, you get the picture.

So what does this say about parking and the public – at least in this crowded, shopaholic nation?

Firstly – planners at local and national level have to become even smarter at working out what motivates consumers to head into town or to the nearest mall.  Trials that test short period free parking, or imaginative (and well publicised) discounting of parking can all help keep the High St alive.

Secondly – technology that is able to deliver real flexibility on parking space hours, pricing and compliance is all available right now – and it can be implemented in a way that reduces costs-to-operate, while applying rules with as-yet-unseen levels of consistency.

Thirdly – across this debate, there needs to be dose of realism and perspective when it comes to second guessing human nature.  There are lots of reasons why out-of-town malls with free parking have continued to thrive, despite the recession and despite the shift to online. No single set of initiatives is going to turn the tide in a particular direction on its own.  Change is complex and unpredictable, and competitive forces in the market usually get the upper hand as the commercial environment evolves.

Ultimately, retailers, property owners, local authorities and central governments will need to continue to focus on anticipating the future shape of demand – and with the crystal ball getting hazier by the day, those that display agile consumer centricity are likely to be in the best possible place to be successful.

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