Britain lacks a direct parallel to America’s Super Bowl commercials, however for those who needed to choose one, it will most likely be the John Lewis Christmas advert. Each 12 months, over the course of a two- or three-minute video, a monster, a dragon or a person on the moon is taught the which means of Christmas, often by babies or animals. The nation both weeps or carps that the incorrect music was used for the soundtrack. And the John Lewis Partnership—which runs John Lewis, a department-store chain that sells every thing from board video games to toilet fittings, and Waitrose, a complicated grocery store—is reaffirmed as having a particular place in middle-class Britain’s collective consciousness.
John Lewis’s cuddly model of capitalism, conceived in 1928 by John Spedan Lewis as an antidote to rising communist sentiment, was once equally feted. In 2012 it was touted by Sir Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister, as a mannequin for the British economic system. Employees are dubbed “partners”, paid a share of earnings as an annual bonus and given beneficiant advantages; they elect a “partnership council” each three years with the facility to dismiss the chairman. But by 2020, even earlier than the pandemic shut down the excessive road, cut-throat on-line competitors and years of declining earnings had put that mannequin beneath menace, says Clive Black of Shore Capital, an funding agency.
In February 2020 Dame Sharon White, a former boss of Ofcom, the communications regulator, took the reins of the John Lewis Partnership. Two years on, a turnaround is beneath method: underlying earnings are climbing as soon as once more (see chart). The revamped enterprise holds a mirror as much as Britain’s excessive streets: extra on-line, extra cost-conscious and eager to diversify.
Most painful was the choice completely to close a 3rd of John Lewis’s 50 bodily shops, from Ashford and Aberdeen to Tamworth and Tunbridge Wells. That lowered prices, and has been vindicated by Brits’ growing fondness for purchasing on-line. Despite the closures and weeks of covid-induced lockdowns, the chain posted report gross sales of £4.9bn ($6.1bn) in 2021. The partnership plans to spend £1bn over 5 years, a lot of which can go in direction of enhancing its digital providers and supply capabilities. Meanwhile, notes Mr Black, the bodily shops that stay give John Lewis an edge over online-only rivals, like Asos and Boohoo, by lowering delivery prices (clients can gather their web purchases in individual) and by making returns simpler.
At the identical time, the partnership is making an attempt to broaden its enchantment past a reasonably particular subset of the center class. A Facebook web page from 2014 entitled “Overheard in Waitrose” comprises the immortal entry “Darling, do we need Parmesan for both houses?”. The grocery store’s inclusion of rosemary and sea salt focaccia in its “essentials” vary gave a lot the identical impression. Now the focaccia is out, and a refocused necessities vary emphasises worth for cash moderately than status-signalling.
The launch of a parallel “Anyday” vary at John Lewis has related objectives. They appear to be being met: final 12 months, of the 2m individuals who purchased Anyday merchandise, 1 / 4 have been new or “reactivated” clients. Meanwhile, the share of youthful clients is ticking up. Kantar, a analysis agency, says that 40% of John Lewis’s gross sales have been to under-45s within the 12 months to March 2022, in contrast with 37% the 12 months earlier than. This was achieved whereas ditching the chain’s long-held promise to be “never knowingly undersold” within the face of competitors from on-line titans like Amazon.
Perhaps most strikingly, Dame Sharon concluded that “John Lewis cannot stay only a retailer if we’re to maintain ourselves as a financially independent partnership.” Instead, it’s branching out into monetary providers and the build-to-rent property market. The partnership already provides Britain’s most-used retail bank card; now it intends so as to add financial savings accounts and insurance coverage to that. It has picked 20 websites, three of which it already owns, that it desires to show into “quality and sustainable housing” to lease out.
Risks loom. Most clearly, the cost-of-living squeeze is certain to have an effect on a retailer that epitomises discretionary spending. Diversification will stretch the enterprise past its core experience. But John Lewis is best positioned to navigate these risks than it was. ■