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27th March 2023

How to solve a problem like John Lewis?

How to solve a problem like John Lewis?

The internet's like that friend who never forgets anything - it'll hold onto everything you've ever done online, ready to bring it up at any moment. 

Meanwhile, our own memories can be a bit dodgy at times - did I close the front door this morning? When it comes to memory stakes, the internet is the house and the house never loses.

Seeing the media about the John Lewis Partnership's current financial woes (an annual loss of £234m last year) made me question whether it was me or my memory playing tricks on me. Once feted as the darling of the British retail market, the behemoth retail giant has had a fall of grace in recent years. This was from a business that anchored prime shopping centres and, anecdotally at least, caused an increase in residential prices when opening a Waitrose nearby.

At the time that 'omnichannel' was the latest buzzword in retail ('multi-channel' is so last year), John Lewis was extolled for its omnichannel champion status, being able to meet customers' needs in a way that other retailers could not match. Buy online and pick up in-store. Order in-store and have it delivered. All done in a way that its competitors just couldn't do with the same ease. They say that retail never stays still and that is certainly true when comparing John Lewis' profits and turnover from 10 years ago to today.

Reading comments from other stalwarts of the high street proves interesting. I was first introduced to Richer Sounds in my first year at university when a number of friends took their student loan and disappeared into a small shop in a less-well-trodden part of the city. Its property strategy from the start was to look for smaller units in slightly out-of-town areas with goods packed to the rafters rather than shiny units in city centres. It is all about the sound and not the looks. Maplin Electronics, who I used to act for, had a similar view.

Julian Richer makes a good point: would you start a chain of department stores with a blank piece of paper and a pile of cash? John Lewis has a legacy of large department stores and continued to when the internet onslaught hit. But that's not to say that entering a built-to-rent partnership deal with Abrdn to rent unused space above stores is necessarily the right solution. It risks diverting focus.

Property was, and still is, a critical part of retail. Even though so much has moved online, there is nothing quite like the physical experience of being in a store and the more successful retailers know this. Walk into any Apple store and the buzz created by new technology which is effectively just bits of silicon and plastic glued together. 

Part of John Lewis' appeal is the way that it made you feel as a customer and that is in no small part due to the employees (known as partners) at John Lewis. Diluting the ownership of the John Lewis Partnership or focusing other than on its cherished brands – John Lewis and Waitrose - could adversely impact that. Are they knowingly underselling their own brand value?