As John Lewis opens its experience-led store in Oxford’s Westgate centre, Drapers takes a behind-the-scenes tour to see how the space embodies the business’s ambitious evolution, and seeks to cater for the modern shopper.
“Department stores have got to rethink what they stand for and give customers a reason to come in – to come off their sofas and into a physical shop,” Paula Nickolds, managing director of John Lewis, tells Drapers, as we overlook the surrounding countryside from the Scandi-inspired rooftop restaurant its new Oxford store. “Department stores have a unique opportunity to do that compared to much of physical retail. We can give you the experiences and we can take you from morning to night.”
This ethos underpins the new store – the 49th in the John Lewis portfolio and its most experience- and service-led to date. The 120,000 sq ft store anchors the Westgate shopping centre in the heart of Oxford, which opens tomorrow, 24 October, and aims to be a curated and carefully targeted evolution of the John Lewis offer.
“Shops continue to be the place where customers experience our brand,” explains a calm and business-like Nickolds. “I think they’re moving from the place where customers used to get everything under one roof, to one where they can do everything under one roof.”
One-fifth of the store is dedicated to services and experiences, such as a nail and brow bar in the 4,500 sq ft beauty hall, personalisation stations, personal styling for men and women, and tech workshops to teach customers how to use their new devices – from smart home tech to camera equipment.
Additionally, there are five “dwell” spaces dotted throughout the store, which will host customer events ranging from yoga classes to personal styling talks.
Pulling these features together, and encapsulating the idea that this store is a day out in itself, is “The Experience Desk”, which is manned by the store’s brand experience manager, Richard Knott. The desk takes centre stage on the second floor and aims to help customers plan their day in the store. It suggests customer “itineraries”, such as “’Top-to-toe’ for a big night out” and “Something for the family”, and customers can book services and experiences from the desk.
Nickolds says the ambition is to “reinvent the department store for the 21st century” and the store seems to be pushing “brand John Lewis”, both in terms of the increasing focus on its own-brand offer and on how customers interact with the store – and it aspires to be integrated into the community, part of customers’ day-to-day lives in the city.
“This shop is culmination of a number of years of work to really celebrate the role that shops play in our business,” says Nickolds. “It’s been too often said that shops are dead and that high streets are dead. We firmly do not believe that and we feel that the shops are the physical manifestation of our brand.”
The Westgate store is certainly an example of that: the sleek design that is John Lewis’s trademark combines with quirky details and thoughtful touches that tie the store to the city and its inhabitants. Many products are labelled “Made in Oxfordshire” and the impressive rooftop restaurant, KuPP, offers dramatic views across the county. Continuing Nickolds’ desire for customers to be able to spend all day in the store, the restaurant has an additional, street-level entrance, and opens until midnight.
The Oxford theme is also core to the store design. Alongside mortarboards and bicycles in the displays, there are numerous references to Alice in Wonderland – whose author, Lewis Carroll, was a lecturer at Oxford University. A wall of giant roses crafted from leaves of the book climbs dramatically up the walls, womenswear displays hint at fairy-tale styling, and a series of vanishing white rabbits are dotted throughout the store and hidden miniature doors, forming part of a children’s treasure hunt. As Nickolds jokes with a wry smile: “Some wise person once said that retail is detail, and we believe that delivering a thoughtful experience is all about the details.”
With the Oxford store, John Lewis is ramping up the focus on own brand, particularly in women’s fashion. Walking around the womenswears offer, John Lewis’s own brands – Kin, Modern Rarity and And/Or – are notably foregrounded, sitting at the heart of the store across all three levels.
“They’re very targeted on our particular customer, so we’ve given them more space and certainly more prominence than we might have done in the past,” says Nickolds. “And we are doing that now across the estate.”
In addition, the “store partners” – as John Lewis calls its staff, all of whom have a share in the company – will now wear uniforms selected from the own brand ranges. Nickolds describes this as a “mark of confidence in our own collections”, but is also a smart way to showcase the product. Nickolds herself appears very “on brand”, wearing a navy, bib-fronted shirt from the Modern Rarity collection, along with crisp white heels and a neat ponytail.
Nickolds has signalled her intention for John Lewis to increase in-house brands to 50% of its total product mix. Fashion sales are up 5.9% for the 11 weeks to 14 October compared with last year, and own brand has been performing strongly, which Nickolds attributes to increased investmen: “We’ve significantly increased the resource in our own brand,” she says. “We’ve got designers and product technologists, and we’re sourcing from really fantastic factories with real attention to detail. I think our energy is there, and our level of confidence and ambition is there.”
Nickolds confesses that her favourite aspect of the new store is the happenings in what she calls the “partner environment”, including how engaged staff are, and the different approaches to training and development. Staff at the Westgate store were hired on the basis of personality and passion, rather than purely on experience. All 322 staff members also took part in drama workshops with the local Oxford Playhouse, which aimed to ensure each member of staff is comfortable to reflect their own character within the brand.
“Our partners embody the brand in every interaction with the customers,” says Nickolds. “Retail as an industry is a route into work for a lot of people, so it’s a great opportunity for us to grow them and create better jobs for them.
“Ultimately, these are our shareholders. These are the people we exist for, and we’re returning value to those people. That’s the most exciting thing about this store.”
The Oxford John Lewis store sets a precedent for the department store’s future development, and is undeniably ambitious, as it seeks to re-imagine and redefine what a department store means for consumers and strengthen its brand for customers and partners alike. However, with its polished set-up, unparalleled experience focus, and relentless focus on detail and customer service, this new store could be set to become Oxford’s own shopping wonderland.