John Lewis Oxford Street’s new beauty department is an exercise in brand promotion while remaining a branded house.

Coming fourth is normally the sort of thing that you tend to keep quiet about, even if the field is large. This is the position that tends to spark the comment ‘And he’s just out of the medals’ when a commentator wants to express wistful disappointment at how a British athlete has failed (again) to make the grade.

Not much potential for pride therefore and yet John Lewis on Oxford Street is aiming for fourth place with its new-look beauty hall, which was completed this week.

In fairness, if it makes fourth, it will be among pretty exalted company (the field is restricted to the ‘Western world’). Translated, this means that this beauty hall will be the fourth largest, in terms of sales, after Harrods, Selfridges (Oxford Street) and Macy’s in New York, according to John Lewis; or at least that’s the plan.

The reason for excluding the Orient from the proceedings is that large glitzy beauty halls in department stores are a given from Tokyo to Hong Kong. Being fourth in the Western world therefore would not be quite so impressive if the field of comparison were truly global.

And at first glance the gpstudio-designed space, 4,000 sq ft larger than in its previous incarnation, does look as if it’s in with a chance of getting close to medal position.

Gone are the walkways and the somewhat clinical feel that characterised the department of old. In their place comes a 12,000 sq ft space that makes beauty product browsing a voyage of discovery. 

The underlying logic of the design is actually pretty straightforward. The premium brands are either around the perimeter or in dedicated shop-in-shop areas, while lesser names (in John Lewis world anyway) are on multi-brand pieces of equipment in the mid-shop. To all intents and purposes, this would sound like a possible blueprint for almost any beauty hall anywhere. But this is the John Lewis beauty hall and the rationale for what’s been done is highly considered.   

Amanda Scott, head of buying for women’s accessories and beauty, says: “We did our last refurbishment [of the beauty hall] in 2006 and it’s been responsible for around 12% of the store’s sales.” It is worth bearing in mind that this figure has been garnered from just 5% of the store’s selling space, which is pretty impressive.

Front of house

This is, however, prime space and equally, it is at the front of the shop. And it has always, unmistakably, been the John Lewis beauty offer, thanks to the retailer’s habit of wrapping everything in a corporate-looking envelope that has meant a vague feeling of ennui from time to time. The beauty hall may have been a branded house, rather than a house of brands, but it was distinctly antiseptic before this makeover. 

The redesign template has been about ensuring that while shoppers of the beauty hall remain in touch with the fact that they are in John Lewis on Oxford Street, the brands are still afforded room to breathe. “For us, beauty’s a key category and we wanted to develop Oxford Street as a true flagship,” Scott comments.

In practice, this means that each branded space around the perimeter is enclosed by a metal frame that incorporates the brand’s name. And within this framework, most of the brands have installed their own equipment, working to the retailer’s strictures as far as height and density are concerned.

The same thinking has been applied to the multi-brand mid-shop fixtures with a John Lewis overarching design being used to contain the displays for each brand. The whole is referred to as a “town hall concept” by John Lewis and gpstudio – a state of affairs in which the core product, that which is owned and controlled by the retailer, is in the centre, with the more premium brands and boutiques surrounding this within their “goal posts”.

The smell of success

It’s worth noting the curved fixtures that have been created to stand either side of the escalator in the heart of the department. These enclose and define the central area and are home to most of the entry-price fragrances. But for those with real money to splash, a scent has been created by Floris that will be on sale at £15,000 – per bottle – complete with its own security guard.

“We’ve worked really hard to retain our identity,” says Scott, and in truth, the work carried out seems to have achieved this aim. The brands have been impressed as well. In addition to stalwarts such as Origins and Bobbi Brown which have long been part of the John Lewis beauty proposition, new brands that have taken up residence in the department include Jo Malone, Aveda, Burberry make-up and Topshop make-up.

The effect has been to reinforce the offers of those that were already in place, while attracting some new names to the party. The no walkways design has also meant that the new beauty hall is more a meander than a high-speed cruise along prescribed in-store super highways.

All of which has been achieved at a price of £8m and at the cost of relocating elements of the homewares department and the whole of the stationery area to the basement. As with the departmental relocations that are underway at Harrods currently, move one department and a domino effect follows as each new merchandise area is spruced up and reassessed.

John Lewis on Oxford Street used to be a place where the good folk of the shires came to spend a little retail leisure time, perhaps in preference to the more edgy environments purveyed by the likes of Selfridges or even, in parts, House of Fraser. They’re probably all still shopping John Lewis, but the revamping of areas such as the beauty hall are certain to attract a newer, more fashion-conscious shopper.

That the refurbishment process has been underway for more than two years now is evidence of confidence and success.

Beyond the beauty hall, lies menswear, also just completed and which now, at last, feels like a contemporary menswear offer.

Fourth may not sound like a great position to be in, even within the Western world, but when you consider that emporia such as Paris’s Galeries Lafayette and KDW in Berlin are among the runners and riders, this laudable ambition will be impressive if realised.

Beauty hall, John Lewis, Oxford Street

Size 12,000 sq ft (expanded by a third)

Date of project finish Second week of May

Design gpstudio, London

Reason for visiting A complete revamp

Target To be the fourth largest (in sales) beauty hall in the Western world

Project time Nine months from start to finish