The ecommerce journey of department store John Lewis differs from its main competitors as it’s early ecommerce steps were marked by the acquisition of the UK arm of Buy.com in 2001.

The retailer paid £2.8m for Buy.com and committed to invest £30m in the web operation over the following four years.

At the time, John Lewis aimed to create the UK’s best online department store.

Doubling down on online

John Lewis, 2001

John Lewis, 2001

The department store’s 2001 website cashed in on Harry Potter mania with a wizard gifts category nestled between gifts for him and her

Since then, it’s set aggressive targets for the growth of its online business and hit £1bn in online sales, with a third of its total sales now online.

In late 2001, John Lewis Direct had been trading johnlewis.com for less than a year, though it had previously run johnlewisnow.com selling a small selection of items.

The technology – and just as importantly the team – from Buy.com helped to propel the department store’s online proposition.

By late 2001, John Lewis already stocked more than 5,000 products and was doing seasonal merchandising well, highlighting gifts for different groups and hampers in both its navigation and on the homepage.

The retailer’s Christmas delivery cut-off date was already a respectable 16th December.

John Lewis was also teaching its customers how to shop online.

Note the basket view in the top right corner (not great from a usability point of view) and links to information about delivery, returns, pricing, security, checkout, customer service and orders all highly prominent in the top half of the page.

By 2004, John Lewis had rolled around 2,000 of Buy.com’s best-selling items into its own site, and closed down the standalone Buy.com site.

The site header also dropped johnlewis.com and replaced it with the retailer’s main logo.

Eye-catching content

John Lewis, 2004

John Lewis, 2004

The retailer’s 2004 website took a wide format which allowed shoppers to see all the content without needing to scroll

Mirroring the widescreen monitors and laptops that were increasingly popular, the 2004 homepage looks wide but all content was above the fold so no scrolling was required.

The site featured basic editorial-style merchandising content; and services launched included wedding and giftlists, fresh flowers and catalogue ordering.

It’s interesting to note that John Lewis was producing a catalogue and using it to drive people to the website to place orders, a tactic several other retailers adopted in the days before consumers could sit at home on their couch browsing items on their tablet or smartphone.

The 2006 site looked remarkably similar to 2004, although the homepage now extended slightly beyond the fold and it was promoting the Waitrose wine site too.

John Lewis, 2008

John Lewis, 2008

The department store’s website came on leaps and bounds in 2008, combining deal offers with editorial content on the homepage

However, the 2008 site was a big step forward. The navigation had adopted a simple mega menu, displaying the full range of categories.

While editorial-style imagery has been retained, this is the first iteration of the site that we’ve seen merchandising products with prices, and deals on the homepage.

Other aspects of the online proposition were also starting to be explained on the homepage, such as free standard delivery, express delivery on appliances, and services such as made-to-order curtains and blinds.

Click-and-collect credentials

John Lewis, 2010

John Lewis, 2010

John Lewis began advertising its click and collect offer on its website in 2010

By 2010 the delivery and click-and-collect proposition has been added to the header, though the rest looks familiar.

Hero imagery had been employed too. However, the main addition to the homepage was the personalised merchandising added through the Your Viewed Items section at the bottom of the page.

The design of the homepage progressed little by 2012, yet we can see evidence of important developments to the online proposition.

The department store was promoting international delivery, and the Never Knowingly Undersold promise was added to its online offer.

The 2014 version of the site again shows another change to the navigation design, with the dark background replaced by a cleaner look and feel.

The mega menu has been dramatically expanded, with a much larger selection of brand and trend options available, as well as an increase in product categories.

John Lewis, 2016

John Lewis, 2016

Today, the department store’s website combines editorial content with clear navigation and simple design

Finally, onwards to today’s site. The navigation remains similar to that of 2014, but there is an important addition to the header – the country flag, denoting that John Lewis now ships to 40 countries and can display prices in local currencies.

The designers have finally removed the keylines from around merchandising pictures on the homepage, a design style that most others had dropped sooner.

Developing design online

Looking back, it’s striking how the evolution of the homepage design has been iterative, rather than a dramatic step-change.

We would argue that this has been for the benefit of its customers, based on substantial testing of what its customers want.

At the same time, the relative lack of change could reflect the Buy.com purchase, which put the retailer ahead of the curve back in 2001.

Some John Lewis partners questioned the acquisition at the time as they felt the potential of dotcom was overhyped, according to the retailer’s in-house publication The Gazette.

But by 2007, the site was its second largest store after Oxford Street. Now online accounts for a third of the company’s total sales, it surely looks like a very good investment.

  • Mark Pinkerton is director of optimisation at Practicology