Chelsea retail dowager Peter Jones is an example of how John Lewis is shifting its visual merchandising direction. John Ryan visits and talks to Robb Bloomer, manager, retail design.

A couple of weeks ago, almost every retailer paid some kind of lip service to the fact that Valentine’s Day was once more upon us. Most felt the need to mark the event with images of red hearts, chocolates, schmaltzy cards and somewhat optimistically priced champagne or sparkling wine.

Peter Jones, the John Lewis store on Sloane Square, was no exception and devoted a section of the ground floor to romantic gifts that would prove irresistible to shoppers. But it is only relatively recently that the department store retailer has started doing this kind of thing. “It’s our attempt to put categories together. We’ve been very good at departments, but when it comes to putting different categories in one place, it’s just something that we haven’t done much,” says Robb Bloomer, manager, retail design.

He has a point. John Lewis windows, for instance, used to be famed for showing only homewares and doing so in a Warholesque manner: multiple iterations of the same product, but in different colours. Bloomer comments: “We always had the philosophy that the windows and in-store displays had to reflect the floor. There was no fantasy in what we did.”

In-store and in the windows things have changed at Peter Jones of late, however, and while “fantasy” might still not be the first word that would spring to mind when attempting to characterise what is being done, neither would monotony. Head up to the store’s fifth floor and the new visual merchandising modus operandi is evident in “Little Home”. This is a series of children’s bedroom roomsets, each backed by a brightly-coloured silhouette of a house. The

aim is to make the whole feel less about commodity and more to do with home-making, according to Bloomer, and the brief for this came from the buying department. “They told us what they wanted to create and we developed the brief in-house,” he says. The outcome is a department that remains a children’s homewares department, but which does not feel quite as regimented as might have been the norm in the past.

There are visual merchandising areas on each floor and each is in the same position relative to the floor above it. This too may sound a little martial, but given that the interior is structured around a vast central atrium, it means that you can lean over the balcony on any of the floors and see a number of product and display installations at any one time.

The other point about the way in which visual merchandising has progressed in Peter Jones in particular, as well as more generally in John Lewis, is that fashion has been allowed

into the windows as the retailer has moved to update the interiors of its womenswear departments. Bloomer says there are now three areas - electricals, homewares and fashion - in the Peter Jones windows and that fashion is given a prominence that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.

This means that the store’s King’s Road glazed frontage, one of the retailer’s longest, consists of one mannequin succeeded by another, dressed in new season stock. It is still quite hard to escape the sense that you’re looking at a repetitious panorama, but as Bloomer points out, there aren’t many other retailers that you could remove the logos from a window display and identify them purely by the way things are arranged. If nothing else, a John Lewis window is distinctive.

All of the Peter Jones windows on King’s Road are boxed in and do not allow views into the store interior. Walk around the rest of the perimeter, however, and many of the other windows afford views deep into the store and “product has been pulled forward”, right up to the glass-line, as Bloomer points out.

This may sound a little like doing what many other retailers have been doing for years, but for the Partnership, it represents a major shift in thinking with a gesture being made in the direction of lifestyle visual merchandising. And much of what is done is a local, rather than central, initiative with only the tone, in terms of colour and textures, being supplied by Bloomer and “his people”, but the execution taking place at branch level. It is also worth noting that the windows in this store break a few hard and fast John Lewis rules in terms of the heights of backdrops, for example. This again is a response to local requirements and the reason that things tend to follow central diktats elsewhere is that display equipment is manufactured centrally.

There are almost 30 people involved in making Peter Jones look the way it does, with admin staff, managers and window dressers all playing their part. This is a retailer that is at last doing what many would regard as a matter of course, but which it has not done previously. With 11 Peter Jones windows, of varying sizes, and eight showcases, as well as numerous in-store displays and a requirement to refresh everything at least every six weeks, it is perhaps not surprising that the lowest common denominator tended to predominate. The visual merchandising staff will find themselves busier than ever at Peter Jones, but it is worth it and this Chelsea retail fixture looks better for it.