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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Never Knowingly Underconfused

Eric Musgrave
03 December 2021

Does anyone like what is happening at John Lewis? Can anyone explain to me what so-called “the favourite department store of Middle England” stands for anymore?

Has the pursuit of e-commerce ruined the business for ever?

I am genuinely interested in the future – and the present – of a unique British retailer.

By inclination I am not a department store shopper, especially when it comes to fashion. I know of many more interesting options than any large store has ever offered me. When it comes to other stuff, such as white goods, technology, homewares and the arcane odds & sods that you discover you need when you have your own home, John Lewis used to be my primary destination of choice.

Why? Because I believed – and my experience bore out – that I would get expert and impartial advice from experienced shop staff. I could trust whatever I was told at JL and when I bought something there, it would be at a fair price backed by good after-sales service if something went wrong.

Discussing this piece with my wife, former fashion editor Jane Eastoe, she reminded me that for many of us John Lewis was an aspirational retailer, somewhere we hoped we could afford when we had moved up a few more notches on the salary ladder.

She made the very pertinent point that when our kids came along she went to John Lewis (and Mothercare – remember them?) with confidence to buy all that new and confusing stuff like pushchairs, car seats, cots and highchairs. You could not go wrong at John Lewis.

My confidence in the business began to drain away, however, about eight years ago when I trekked from my office in Old Street, London to the Oxford Street flagship to buy digital cameras for my editorial team.

I got the usual comprehensive advice on cameras to suit our needs. When I said I would buy four there and then I was surprised and disappointed to be told they did not have them in stock. They could have them delivered to a Waitrose near my office the next day.

I thought to myself, if I had wanted to wait for them I could have just gone online and ordered them. And not made the journey – 45 minutes each way – to the store not to complete the purchase.

Resisting the temptation to go and give the business to an online trader, I agreed to the ridiculous situation of paying for something portable but having to wait to receive it. It seemed to me the e-commerce tail was already wagging the department store dog.

That was in 2013. A hell of a lot has happened to the John Lewis Partnership since then, particularly since it has been under the new management of Dame Sharon White, who has been chair of the John Lewis Partnership (ie John Lewis and Waitrose) since February 2020.

A civil servant since 1989, she achieved high office in the Treasury and then was CEO at media regulator Ofcom between 2015 and 2019. With no retailing experience, she was a surprising choice to succeed Charlie Mayfield as chair at JLP.

In anticipation of writing this piece, I spoke to a couple of pals with long experience of UK retailing. When I asked the first, a very well-regarded retail commentator, what was happening with John Lewis, he mischievously replied “It’s all online these days, innit?”

My second source, a menswear supplier to the store group for many years, was less playful and gave me a long and unhappy story about how John Lewis under the pre-White regime had lost the plot at least five years ago, chasing online business while at the same time clutching to the company’s celebrated Never Knowingly Undersold price promise.

The White team has moved many good sellers from the stores to its online platform based, it seems, on the short-term uplift of the pandemic’s shopping habits.

I believe John Lewis should have ditched the Never Knowingly Undersold slogan and the price-matching practice at least 10 years ago. What was appropriate when it was introduced in 1925 was not appropriate in the era of the race-to-the-bottom on price as exhibited by many online players and JL’s direct store group rivals Debenhams (“Never Knowingly Not On Sale”) and House of Failure, sorry, House of Fraser.

I wrote a long time ago that JL should drop the Never Knowingly Undersold motto, which tied it to the kamikaze pricing policies of too many rubbish companies and replace it with something that more accurately reflected its core values, such as Always Excellent Value.

Not for the first time, I was ignored. Talking to very senior – the most senior – JL directors, they would not countenance axing Never Knowingly Undersold. It was like talking to the members of a brainwashed cult.

The result was the company price-matched all and sundry, slashed margin and lost its position as an aspirational retailer.

In August 2020 there was press speculation that White would drop the practice but Never Knowingly Undersold is still listed on the customer services section of JL’s website.

John Lewis Edinburgh with its faded old branding above the new sign

Old habits die hard. On a reconnaissance visit to the John Lewis store in Edinburgh on Thursday 25 November I was depressed to see the company promoting Black Friday deals.

Clearly giving away margin is an addictive habit. Can someone please explain to me why John Lewis, if it has any pretentions left of being aspirational and trustworthy, needs to get involved in the mad US import?

The store, which has been in the Scottish capital since 1973 (not sure how that fits in with the Middle England demographic!), has been refurbished recently as part of its integration into the St James Quarter shopping centre.

In September 2018, the old John Lewis management, for some unfathomable reason, rebranded the stores John Lewis & Partners. Why any company would wish to double the length of its name puzzles me.

The best brand names are punchy and short – like Next, Vogue or Dior. It was poignant to see the faded outline of the John Lewis name above the new signage on the street side of the store.

The Christmas windows on the shopping centre side did little to lift my mood. Channeling my inner Peggy Lee, I thought “Is that all there is?” when viewing a large, illuminated square carrying a trite comment alongside a very few lonely mannequins. The featured outfits were insipid and the lighting seemed poorly targeted on the displays.

The whole thing screamed “VM budget cuts” to me.

The Christmas windows

The impression was better on the street side of the building where larger window made more impact. Wisely, several of the windows had no discernible displays, instead allowing a view straight into the kitchen design and furniture departments.

On the St James Quarter side, there are entrances on three levels. Each one lacked any sort of Wow factor, any sense of theatre.

That said, I found most of the six floors of the store to be well-laid out, clean and tidy, bright and at a comfortable temperature. I thought the understated Christmas decorations worked well.

A very big plus for me was there was no music playing when I was there (from about 10am to midday). I am always pleased not to be subjected to unnecessary noise, especially an over-familiar Christmas play list.

As I mentioned above, I would never go to John Lewis for fashion. In menswear, the line-up of branded shop-in-shops in Edinburgh comprised All Saints, Barbour, Boss, Gant, Levi’s, Ted Baker, Tommy Hilfiger, Tommy Jeans, Polo Ralph Lauren and Reiss.

I cannot knock the success of these names but it is a predictable roster.

The only surprise was a small section of Aubin, once Aubin & Wills, a onetime stablemate of Jack Wills, but now independently owned by co-founder Peter Williams.

In womenswear the formula was repeated, with All Saints, Barbour, French Connection, Hobbs, Jigsaw, Joules, Levi’s Mint Velvet, Reiss, Ted Baker, Whistles and White Stuff dominating the floor.

Only Weekend Max Mara would I regard as comfortably above safe mid-market.

Additionally, only Albaray, And/Or, Hush and Girlfriend Collection in any way caught my eye alongside the over-distributed rest.

As far as fashion retailing goes, this is just going through the motions.

Most of the six floors were well-laid out, clean and tidy

In a recent interview, Pippa Wicks, former deputy CEO of the Co-op and one of White’s hires as executive director, confidently stated: “…there’s no point in us having the same as Marks & Spencer, Next, Boohoo or Asos – that’s daft. We’ve got to have stuff that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Yes, quite.

I noticed that the Partners, once neatly suited, are now dressed in all-black outfits of casualwear tops and trousers. I am sure this was done to “update” the look and make it “more inclusive” or “more attractive” to a younger demographic, but it just makes them harder to spot on the floor.

It is also harder to spot them as John Lewis has cut staff to save costs. All very predictable but it also undermines what made John Lewis a trusted destination.

On my quasi-mystery shopper visit I was not once asked by a Partner if I needed help. When I sought it out, however, I was not disappointed.

In the white goods department, Cindy (22 years with JL) was patient and knowledgeable when going through the relative merits of dishwashers.

In carpets, Neil (24 years with JL) was equally impressive when discussing my options for a runner up the centre of my stairs. I was particularly pleased he pointed out that looped carpets are not good for pets as they can catch their claws. I would never have thought of that.

On the downside, I had to wait for about four minutes for a Partner to find Neil to bring him to the carpet department. Later in my visit I understood why. He was covering a large area of floorspace.

I spoke to him again sometime later in the mirror department. I did not intend to buy a dishwasher or a stair carpet, but I was ready to give the Partnership £50 on the spot for a mirror on display.

Alas, the mirror was out of stock. As were the two dishwasher options Cindy had narrowed down for me. Both Partners recommended that I went online and registered my interest in the elusive items.

This is supply chain disruption in action and I cannot hold John Lewis responsible. Cindy advised me to react quickly to any update because white goods were sold as soon as they appeared.

Neil went even further with old-fashioned service. Even as we chatted, he emailed to me the online link to the mirror I was considering. Servicewise, it was like being back in the John Lewis of old (except then they would have had the product in stock, of course).

The considerate and informed knowledge of shop floor staff like this was, and to me still is, a huge attraction of shopping in a John Lewis store. Alas, in July the partnership revealed it was to make 1,000 jobs redundant across John Lewis and Waitrose to save money.

With the demise of Debenhams and its 150 or so stores and the continuing failure of Frasers to reposition itself as “the Harrods of the high street”, to use Mike Ashley’s gormless phrase, I would have thought John Lewis could seize the department store-shaped area in the British high street but I saw no ambition, no excitement, and little desire in its Edinburgh store.

In its pursuit of the online dream, does it really believe in its 34 remaining stores?

The store was taking part in Black Friday

Like every other retailer, JLP is jumping aboard the sustainability bandwagon. A few days before my visit the Partnership announced it was stumping up £1m for something called The Circular Future Fund.

As TheIndustry.Fashion reported, JL and Waitrose are “looking to support a small number of projects that will accelerate the transition to a more circular economy, for example by rethinking waste with new products and materials, shifting consumer mindsets or developing new businesses models and services.”

If it wants to change mindsets, John Lewis could always start in its own menswear department. I was impressed by the selection of own-label tailoring and outerwear, which presented commercial contemporary styles using fabrics from premium European mills such as Zegna, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Abraham Moon.

Looking more closely at a coat bearing a label of the Italian mill Fortex, however, I noted that the cloth comprised 65% wool, 28% polyester, 5% polyamide (aka nylon) and 2% acrylic.

I later discovered that Fortex is based in Prato, the Tuscan town famous for recycling textiles, but I am not sure how “circular” 35% synthetic fibres are in the great sustainability debate.

In a fine example of the difficulty (or hypocrisy) of saving the planet through fashion, the own-label coat had been manufactured in China, so that fabric had racked up a few air miles and carbon emissions between Prato and Edinburgh.

Following my visit I was more worried than before that Dame Sharon White’s senior team, which is very light on retailing experience, are missing a huge opportunity to make physical retail relevant and essential as they pursue the sunlit uplands of e-commerce.

They are missing the wood for the trees. There are many of us who prefer to shop in a store, not online. As far as better-end (there’s a term you don’t hear any more!) department stores go across the country, John Lewis is the only game in town.

Quite clearly the previous management of JLP lifers were asleep at the wheel. It will be a shame if the current custodians of John Spedan Lewis’ legacy do not realise what John Lewis had and could so easily have again.

Images of John Lewis by Eric Musgrave. Image of Eric by Laura Lewis

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