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Comment: John Lewis throws down the experience gauntlet

John Lewis National Treasures 1

The emphasis on emotion and experience in John Lewis’s summer campaign leaves its closest rivals in the dust, writes Drapers’ Kirsty McGregor.

Kirsty McGregor

Walk past the John Lewis store in Oxford Street today and your head might be turned by the tinkle of an ice cream van. The windows of the flagship and John Lewis’s entire UK store estate have been taken over by postcard scenes of the British summertime, evoking trips to seaside towns and lazy picnics in the park. It is part of the department store group’s new “National Treasures” summer campaign, in which it takes the concept of experiential retailing to a new level.

The windows and stores are populated with typical British characters and some tongue-in-cheek representations of John Lewis staff. There are 220 characters in total, all drawn by British illustrator Paul Thurlby, who works with newspapers such as The Guardian. There is some product in the windows but it is subtle: a brightly coloured handbag on the shoulder of one of the characters could be part of the illustration.

The emphasis here is not on selling product – it is on emotion and experience. The campaign manages to stay just on the right side of nostalgic without being twee, largely because of the humour. Alongside sunshine and smiles there are rainy scenes and the odd amusingly grumpy face, and every type of British holidaymaker you can imagine, from the man with a beer belly and T-shirt sunburn to a little old lady wearing a rain bonnet. It is also bound to play well with tourists, as it depicts so many quintessentially British icons, ranging from the Queen to cups of tea.

John Lewis is becoming as much an events organiser as it is a retailer. Throughout the summer it will hold masterclasses, workshops and Q&As – including some focused on British fashion design, although the full details of this have not yet been disclosed.

It has also put the rooftop of its Oxford Street store to good use again: it has been reinvented as a “Gardening Society”, where people can eat and drink, and learn about the foods and herbs we can grow in the British Isles. Customers can hire private spaces, and ring a bell for service. Herbs grown on the rooftop will be used in the cooking and cocktails. As someone born in rural Ayrshire but brought up in cities, sometimes without any garden space at all, I love this focus on gardening, as well as discovering this oasis of calm above always-busy Oxford Street. 

John Lewis is following closely in the footsteps of Selfridges, which has long been the leader of experiential retailing in the UK department store arena. Selfridges also has a themed rooftop restaurant, although it does not have the same amount of space to play with as John Lewis. Earlier this month, Selfridges revealed its “Our House” campaign. Like National Treasures, it plays on our emotions – in this case by exploring the rituals, objects and ideas that make a house a home. On the ground floor of its Oxford Street store is an immersive and interactive environment exploring the home as the most fundamental expression of “self”. It is offering workshops that include – bizarrely – group potato peeling.

John Lewis has also learned from its own hugely successful Christmas campaigns and is offering National Treasures merchandise for sale – so the campaign itself becomes a reason to visit the store.

The campaign celebrates diversity, which is interesting given the spotlight on immigration issues following the Brexit vote. But John Lewis’s affable customer experience director, Peter Cross, insists the retailer is not trying to be political. Instead, it simply believes customers will be attracted by its optimistic world view.

The playfulness of National Treasures, which has gone into all John Lewis stores, is certainly appealing. With this campaign, John Lewis has thrown down the gauntlet to its closest department store rivals. I can think of little at Debenhams and House of Fraser – aside from oft-discounted product – that would entice me into their stores. Cafes and restaurants are not enough of a differentiator any more, or certainly not in cities where there is so much choice.

Sergio Bucher’s new strategy for Debenhams recognises the need to bring in more experiential retailing. But he only outlined that strategy on 20 April. Meanwhile, we wait to find out who will replace Nigel Oddy at House of Fraser and how he or she will address similar challenges. Both retailers need to step up their games sooner rather than later or risk being left in the dust.

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