The new John Lewis at Westfield Stratford City is the largest store in the development and the retailer’s first new store in the capital for 20 years. John Ryan walks the store with Kim Morris, head of retail design 

It takes a while to fit-out a small store and a bit longer to do the same for a very large one. This may sound like an obvious thing to say, but in fact it takes massively longer to deal with a big space, even if you scale the numbers working on it up accordingly, purely because of the added complexity of the task and the need for consistent project management. Couple this with the logistics that come as part and parcel of equipping and stocking a shop, and it becomes apparent that it’s not just a matter of finding the right space when setting up a flagship store – it’s also how willing you are to devote time and energy to getting things off the starting blocks.

The John Lewis store at Westfield Stratford City has been open for a little over two weeks now and as in-city retail spaces go, they don’t come much bigger than this. Covering 260,000 sq ft and costing £35m, it’s The Partnership’s first new London store for 20 years.

The other thing about a shop of this size is that it’s very rare for it to be designed by a single body, and this store is no exception. While much of what’s on view is the handiwork of Kim Morris, head of retail design, and her team, the services of consultancies Virgile & Stone and Dalziel & Pow have also been brought into play.

The outcome is certainly impressive, although some areas look better than others, and given the delivery restrictions that were in place at the centre, getting the £30m, or thereabouts, worth of stock onto the shelves was a pretty major undertaking in itself.

As in all stores, however, there is something to be said for looking at the overall effect and then the individual parts that make up the whole. And overall, this looks just like a modern John Lewis store. There’s a store-high atrium in the centre, with banks of escalators that make getting from one floor to another a source of mild diversion. There’s the haberdashery department, an indispensable feature of a full-line John Lewis store, even if the word is fusty, and there are the well-mannered, crisply turned-out men and women on hand to offer advice as required.

There’s rather more to this store than just the kind of place you visit to enjoy a spot of unruffled retail calm, though. Look a little more closely and one of the things that’s likely to hit you are the hands, figuratively that is. Wooden artist’s mannequin-style flexible hands are everywhere, suspended from strings in groups above dedicated merchandise areas. The idea is simple and used to good effect across much of the store, with the clue to what’s being done provided from the moment you enter via the main (mall) door. Here, a table of glasses, champagne flutes and suchlike, has a group of hands above it. A couple of the hands are used to clasp items from the offer beneath them. Morris says it may look “precarious”, but that they are sufficiently well secured for them to be interesting and safe in the same moment.

Whether or not this is indeed the case, the technique does have the dual benefit of making you look at what’s been done and also serves as a departmental beacon for those looking for glassware across the vast expanse of this floor.

Favourite things

Morris picks out a series of areas in-store  that she has decided are her “favourites”. In at number one is the furniture department, which looks and feels more like a life-styled offer than a well put together warehouse where you go and look at a range of sofas, followed by a range of chairs, and so on. As this building enjoys amazing views over the adjacent Olympic park, one of the more contemporary room-sets allows you to test drive a living room while staring across at the Zaha Hadid-designed Olympic swimming pool – even the denizens of the not too distant Docklands are unlikely to have a room with this kind of view.

Second up for Morris is what she refers to as “bathroom accs” – which turns out to be toilet seats, towels, soap dispensers and everything else you might want to make your more intimate moments a matter of personal pampering, rather than a quick splash. As with the hands in other areas of the store, it’s the overhead detail that matters. In this instance, a high-level perimeter shelf has white female head and shoulders busts along its length. Each of these sports a turban, created from the towels on the shelves beneath it. It’s simple stuff, but far more effective than the normal sign stating ‘towels’ (as seen in Debenhams Newcastle on a previous visit) that always seem a blinding glimpse of the obvious and which does not inform the consumer about a department’s location across a busy floor.

Morris goes on to list about five other areas, but the point about each is that they function well as discrete shop-in-shops, rather than departments in a sprawling store. The technology and bed departments should also be mentioned, both of which look comprehensive, easy-to-read from a shopper’s perspective and destinations that you might want to spend some time in.

The Olympic shop on the top floor is a mild disappointment, despite it having one of the best views of the outside world in the entire store. Given that this is in what might otherwise be a difficult space to get customers up to, there is some slack to be cut, but a white box, containing white equipment, does smack a little of lowest common denominator and afterthought.

As a whole though, this is a worthy anchor for Stratford and John Lewis has succeeded in creating something that will help it and the centre act as a destination for shoppers from beyond the immediate vicinity.

It would be hard to complete any review of the store without detailing its exterior, which has to be one of the most spectacular frontages, sides and rears of any shop in the UK. This is a building that will be around for decades and the architecture has more about it than the usual impermanence that marks so many retailers’ efforts when it comes to dealing with a store’s exterior.

John Lewis tends to be cautious when it comes to locating its stores, but its Stratford City leviathan, internally and externally, is a real mark of faith in the project and in this part of east London. 

John Lewis, Stratford City

Location 101, The Arcade, Westfield Stratford City

Size 260,000 sq ft

Store design In-house, Virgile & Stone, Dalziel & Pow

Stand out architectural features The building’s exterior and the view from the top floor

Standout internal features The in-store visual merchandising, doubling up as internal signage for the departments