Transforming a store for Sale is a race against the clock. So how do retailers ensure it’s as smooth as possible? Liz Morrell spent the night before Christmas at John Lewis to find out

One minute shoppers are panic-buying last-minute Christmas gifts, and the next they’re jostling for position in the Sales queue.

The trouble a retailer faces is transforming a store so that it can accommodate the stampeding hordes that arrive a matter of hours after closing for Christmas Day.

Do staff work into the small hours on Christmas Eve after the last customer has gone home? Far from it. John Lewis promises that all of its partners will be driving home for Christmas by 6pm. When the stores shut at 5pm, that’s no mean feat, and for a department store such as John Lewis it’s particularly impressive. As Retail Week Knowledge Bank shows, its 28 stores comprise a total 3.9 million sq ft of shopfloor space, and its sales equate to about £740 per sq ft. That’s a lot of floor to prepare. Furthermore, the John Lewis clearance Sale draws bargain hunters from near and far so the pressure is on.

This year its sales during Christmas and clearance were described as “outstanding” by the retailer, and the fifth week of the period to January 1 resulted in sales of £106.4m - up 4.6%.

To put the one-hour promise to the test, Retail Week followed store staff at John Lewis’s Cribbs Causeway branch near Bristol from the week before Christmas to chart its progress.

Friday, December 17

Liz Mihell is managing director of the shop, and joined from John Lewis’s Cardiff branch a few weeks earlier. She says that a week before Christmas is the most challenging point of the festive season for store staff: “We’ve still got the biggest days ahead of us in terms of trade, as well as the biggest logistical changes ahead for clearance.”

With a few days until clearance begins, store staff are focusing on managing the peak trading, but on a department-by-department basis decisions are starting to be made on the likely clearance packages that each will have.

Meanwhile, back of house, the deliveries of John Lewis’s ‘special buy’ product are also starting to arrive for the Sale. At this time of the year the retailer increases stock of certain lines such as duvets, having negotiated discounts from suppliers so it can pass savings on to customers. Like normal stock, the prices of special buys are fixed because they are bought about six months previously based on the sales histories of similar lines.

Back in store, some markdowns have already begun, although the retailer isn’t yet on full Sale like some of its peers. “There are some seasonal markdowns, for example on gift food and Christmas stationery,” says Mihell. There are also discounts in branded fashion as many of the brands have gone on Sale early and John Lewis needs to maintain its Never Knowingly Undersold promise.

Mihell admits there is a tough challenge ahead. “All retailers talk every year about Christmas coming later and later so it’s really important to keep product available,” she says.

The week before Christmas

Over the next couple of days, more special buy stock is delivered, particularly china and linens. Store staff will manage the arrival of 13 trailers of clearance stock in this week alone. Much of this will go onto the shopfloor on Christmas Eve, while the remainder will be used for replenishment after clearance has begun. Suzie Henriques is operations manager at the Cribbs Causeway branch and the person in charge of the transformation to clearance. She says: “Our distribution teams have worked really hard to make all the stock as shopfloor-ready as possible and once the majority of stock is out then everything is organised ready for filling up.”

Rationalisation of product areas has also begun this week, says Mihell. “We have to flex the space - for instance the Christmas Shop will be starting to sell through so we will flex that space ready for furniture.”

Some shortcuts are also being prepared - such as placing red tickets behind the usual pricing information so that all partners have to do after closing on the final day of trade before Christmas is whip away the full price ticketing. Mannequins have been redressed from Christmas-themed stock to clearance items ready to go out and for ticketing. “All of this has been quietly going on behind the scenes and impacts very little on the customer,” says Henriques.

Christmas Eve

The day begins with mulled wine and mince pies, and the store welcomes the local Salvation Army carol singers to help put customers in the mood for their final shop before Christmas. Henriques says there is a unique buzz in the store on Christmas Eve. “Many partners choose to work Christmas Eve because it’s such a key day,” she says. The retailer works rotas to ensure that all staff get at least a three-day break over either Christmas or the new year period.

4.50pm

Those truly last-minute Christmas shoppers scramble for purchases as the final announcement that the store will close at 5pm echoes on the public address system. A man hovers at the Clinique counter but has forgotten the foundation his girlfriend uses. He’s one of many male customers in stores across the business who help the retailer record high levels of last-minute sales in the lingerie, gift, food and beauty departments as they hunt down gifts while the clock is ticking.

At the back of the store, teams of staff are busy preparing the clearance and special buy stock that will appear on the floors immediately after closing. About 300 will stay to help, with shopfloor staff being joined by office and support staff from the branch. No one is due back until an early check takes place on Monday 27, when the store opens at 9am for the start of clearance.

“At no time does teamwork mean more than today,” says Henriques. Mihell says the attitude of staff in this last hour is key. “They are fast and efficient. It’s fabulously frenetic,” she says.

In hindsight, they must also have been very tired. John Lewis’s post-Christmas results revealed that the week ending Christmas Day resulted in sales of £97.1m, up 30.6% on the same week the year before. Nine stores achieved record pre-Christmas days.

5pm - the hour of transformation

Online, the clearance has just begun and results will later show a record hour for the retailer. John Lewis’s online clearance sales on Christmas Eve alone were up 42%, with more than four products sold every second.

Meanwhile, at 5pm the shutters are being activated in store and the last customers are being gently encouraged towards the doors. As they leave, the background hum of the pre-Sale work begins immediately as cages rumble out and partners busily re-merchandise and re-ticket stock. Hanging ceiling Christmas decorations are being replaced with huge red clearance signs, while pricing tickets are being replaced with red labels and clothing is being red penned as staff strike out the old price and replace it with the new. Cube fixtures are being redressed with red tops to emphasise the clearance stock.

At the tills, staff, including partner Tim Lester-Smith, are busy tidying up and making one of the most visual changes of the Sale - the swapping of the retailer’s standard green bags for its red clearance bags. He says the Sale continues to improve: “It gets better every year and we just keep on building on the success. It’s all hands on deck and we do it really well, and it’s nice to see everyone chipping in.”

The stockroom houses cage after cage of stock, ready to be rolled out on to the shopfloor by the supply chain staff as required. Each is labelled to clearly show where in the store it needs to go and is accompanied by layout plans for the staff.

As 5.30pm approaches, the first of the departments is completing its clearance displays and staff appear from different floors to help colleagues in other departments, most doing it of their own accord but floor co-ordinators on walkie talkies organise staff if needed. As the 6pm deadline looms, the co-ordinators begin to push the pace a little harder to ensure staff can leave by the promised time and get home for their own Christmas preparations.

The chatter is louder, the pace more urgent but jovial as staff begin ticking off the list of departments as each is completed.

And then, as if by magic, the transformation is complete. A collective sigh of relief is heard as staff realise the job is done. Apart from some management staff coming in early on the 27th to ensure everything is ready and working, the change is complete. Staff start to filter out of the door, collecting coats and their last minute purchases on their way, and leave with chocolates, good wishes and a thank you from management as they walk out of the door. So there it is. Proof that John Lewis stores can be made ready for clearance, devoid of any sign of Christmas, in under 60 minutes. And all that before anyone has unwrapped a single present.

Cribbs Causeway: CLEARANCE in numbers

2009/10

  • On the first day of clearance the year before last the branch sold enough towels to go around the Olympic running track 10 times
  • It sold enough duvet covers to span Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge
  • And enough bed sheets to stretch four times around the outer stone circle at Stonehenge

JOHN LEWIS CLEARANCE in numbers

  • If you lay all the bath towels and bed linens sold at John Lewis during clearance end to end they would stretch to Lapland
  • By the end of January, John Lewis will have received about 500 trailer loads of clearance stock in its distribution centres, equating to more than a million units
  • The online business will receive more than 50 trailer-loads of clearance stock and sells a range of more than 650 individual products
  • Over clearance, John Lewis sells enough beds and mattresses to fill one of the largest hotels in the world, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas
  • On its first day of clearance on December 27, 2010, sales reached £27.8m, up 54% on 2009 and 30% on its previous biggest ever day on December 27, 2008
  • For the first full three days of clearance in 2010, sales were up 26.2%