The fact that John Lewis will use 15 stores to pilot new ideas is symbolic of coming to terms with digital and the new terrestrial.

For terrestrial retailers times are tough, customers are hard to come by, and all the while internet merchants are biting at the heels.

Given all of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the John Lewis Partnership warned last week that profits could be “close to zero” in the first half of the group’s current financial year.

“This kind of thing costs money, even when some of the planned new features are ephemeral in nature”

What might surprise some a little more was the statement of intent that, in September, John Lewis will be testing new ideas in 15 ‘pilot’ stores, ranging from rooftop pop-up cinemas and bars to events and in-store classes.

This kind of thing costs money, even when some of the planned new features are ephemeral in nature.

But does this mean that, for bricks-and-mortar retailers, coming to terms with the digital economy involves spending money in the face of tumbling profits? The answer must be a resounding yes, albeit not forever.

Measure for measure

It is fashionable in some quarters to blame the internet – and those who sell merchandise from it – for the woes of store-centric retailers.

Yet John Lewis looks comfortable straddling the digital divide and seems happy to devote time and money to its digital arm – a strategy that might actually mean a little shooting in the foot as far as its physical estate is concerned.

In truth, resources need to be allocated to both online and offline retail in equal measure.

“Those with shops need to look not just at their immediate competitors, but also to consider the outer reaches of the leftfield”

Money has to be set aside for stores just as much as digital in order to ensure that things are up to scratch for the fabled ‘channel agnostic’ 21st century shopper.

It has frequently been said that the best retailers are those that look beyond the next five days and what needs to be done when the figures are analysed on a Monday. The changing retail landscape means that those with shops need to look not just at their immediate competitors, but also to consider the outer reaches of the leftfield.

This is what the John Lewis initiative is about, and while the notion of ‘experience’ is a well-worn cliché, there is not much that might be done to its stores without importing elements from well outside the immediate boundary of what is normally regarded as department store retailing.

The challenge that confronts almost every retailer as they stare into the multichannel future is what retail will actually mean – and on current evidence, it will involve a lot more than shifting things off the shelf, digital or otherwise.