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Memo from Musgrave: The new grand centre for department stores

In the unlikely event that Harrods decides to open another UK store beyond its refined SW1 postcode, surely its destination must be Birmingham.

As of Thursday (September 24), Drapers declares the West Midlands metropolis the UK’s department store capital. With the opening of a smart John Lewis, Brum now has a unique line-up of Debenhams, Harvey Nichols, House of Fraser, JL and Selfridges. What a happy quintet!

As we report on pages 3 and 33 (and more extensively online), the 32nd full-line store for John Lewis raises the bar on several levels. It is demonstrably stronger on visual merchandising, there is an impressive selection of bespoke fixtures and fittings, it has a much larger area for women’s footwear, it is pushing its own labels Kin, John Lewis & Co and Bruce by Bruce Oldfield more forcefully, and it has added premium brands such as Ferragamo in women’s shoes and Boss Orange in menswear.

It is upping personal service levels with a very impressive bank of fitting rooms (I counted 19) adjacent to the women’s floor and a high-level spa called & Beauty offering more than 100 treatments. The Place to Eat restaurant has had a makeover and the trendy Joe & The Juice cafe appears both on the Grand Central balcony overlooking New Street station and within the new lifestyle department Loved & Found.

John Lewis’s tilt at attracting a younger, edgier and more contemporary group of shoppers to Loved & Found looks good. While the mix of fashion, footwear, gifts, homewares, books, art and cosmetics is hardly unique (we have a strong category in the Drapers Independents Awards devoted to such Lifestyle stores), it is quite a departure for JLP. 

The usual retailing disciplines that have resulted in more efficient use of space in, say, the kidswear department (the rails on the fixtures have been extended by about a third so that more garments can be displayed) have not been applied in Loved & Found. JL management admits that this is an experiment for the business and, while avoiding the word “risk”, there’s no doubt that there’s a touch of nervous excitement (or excited nervousness?) about the reaction it will provoke. Curiously, the “partners” who staff Loved & Found will be specially selected and trained differently, and will not work in other departments.

As one would expect, the entire store is awash with tasteful but numerous references to JL’s online proposition. Signs remind customers “We’ve got more than we can show” and terminals are readily available so that online shopping can be done in-store. Click-and-collect is alongside the spa. 

While not as eye-popping as the recently opened Harvey Nichols in the nearby Mailbox, this confident store is bound to do well. On seeing images of Loved & Found, a 30-year-old Drapers editorial colleague said: “I think increasingly that John Lewis is aiming itself at me.”

Still with JLP, its chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield remarked last week that the national living wage would increase unemployment unless the UK improved its poor productivity performance. He was speaking as head of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, a quango that brings together industry and unions to advise the government. I doubt the living wage is much of a concern for JLP – nor should it be for any medium or large retailer. But business rates remain a real menace to retail prosperity. Some action on that front would be very welcome.

PS. I will chair a panel on UK manufacturing at 2.45pm on September 29 at Fashion SVP at London Olympia. I hope to see some of you there. 

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