Department store giant embarks on hunt for a partner to make its debut on the sub-continent

John Lewis is poised to break into the burgeoning US$330 billion (£168 billion) Indian retail market by opening department stores there.

The Partnership’s department store division is understood to be scouting for an Indian partner for a joint venture or franchise business in the country. The first opening is likely to be in Mumbai.

A source close to the situation said that John Lewis is expected to open “a few” stores in India, but the process is still at an early stage.

“The biggest challenge is finding the real estate. To do justice to the brand, which is already well-respected in India, it needs to be an anchor tenant in a major mall,” the source said.

Competition for suitable sites is likely to be fierce. “There is a pull for the John Lewis brand, but the other issue is that the malls already have agreements with retailers such as Carrefour,” the source said.

Last year, Retail Week (September 28) revealed that John Lewis Partnership chairman Charlie Mayfield was exploring overseas opportunities for both John Lewis and the partnership’s grocery division, Waitrose, but that it would remain focused on UK expansion in the near term. Waitrose has since struck a deal with Middle Eastern grocer Spinneys to open shops in the Gulf.

John Lewis said at the end of last year that it will double UK department store numbers by opening 24 in the next decade.

One suitable partner for John Lewis’s push into India may be department store business Shopper’s Stop, a stablemate of hypermarket chain HyperCity, which sells Waitrose products.

A move into India would likely light a fire under UK rival Marks & Spencer, which has ambitious plans for expansion on the sub-continent. It will also interest fellow UK department store group Debenhams, which has pushed the button on expansion in the country – starting in Gurgaon, Delhi – through a franchise arrangement with Indian retail group Planet Retail.

John Lewis has consistently outperformed its UK peers and is expected to post market-busting growth when it reveals full-year results on March 6.

In 2006, Shopper’s Stop launched Mothercare in India. Last year, it entered into a franchise agreement with Home Retail to launch Argos in the country in partnership with HyperCity.

John Lewis rejected the speculation about an Indian launch. Managing director Andy Street said: “We still have many opportunities in the UK and this remains our focus at the current time.”