Today will be a good day to go shopping in a John Lewis or Waitrose store.
A colleague who visited the Oxford Street branch yesterday evening told me that the service exceeded even its usual high standard, and who would be surprised given the 20 per cent bonus the partners were celebrating.
To increase profits by nearly 18 per cent and sales by more than 6 per cent in what has been a hard year for the high street is a remarkable achievement and is testament to both the quality of management and the way in which the Partnership has stayed true to its culture while moving with the retail times.
John Lewis doesn’t get the credit it deserves within the sector, partly because people have become used to such outperformance and partly because of its unique structure where it answers only to its partners rather than external shareholders.
But that’s an approach borne out of jealousy. For a start, it wasn’t that long ago that the Partnership was considered a retail relic. Its stores didn’t open on Mondays or Saturday afternoons, let alone Sundays, the branches were old-fashioned and it didn’t communicate to anyone in the outside world. If you’d said it would become a leader in multichannel retailing within a few years, you’d have been laughed at.
The transformation it has been through in the past decade rivals any in the sector, the credit for which lies at the door of Sir Stuart Hampson, the unlikely moderniser who retired as chairman last year. All the signs are that his successor Charlie Mayfield is carrying on in very much the same vein and it will be fascinating to hear his vision for the Partnership when he speaks at the Retail Week Conference next Wednesday.
Tougher times lie around the corner, particularly in the department store business where big-ticket discretionary items make up a large part of the assortment. John Lewis won’t be immune to this as its numbers since the end of its financial year are already showing.
But John Lewis will ride out the storm much better than others and that’s because it is much more in touch with today’s customers than many retailers. It offers a good store experience, is authoritative on product and competitive on price. Furthermore, its unique structure means it treats its staff well and its suppliers fairly and shoppers like that. When times are tough, it focuses on doing what it does better rather than panic Sales and rash cost-cutting.
The Partnership is indeed a one-off. But it’s a one-off many other retailers could learn from.