John Lewis’s sophisticated Oxford Street redesign is set to put the retailer’s ambitious own-brand focus to the test
The spectre of House of Fraser’s crumbling fortunes looms large across the British high street, and as managing director Paula Nickolds steps on to John Lewis’s smart roof terrace to officially launch the new-look store, the grubby rooftop of the neighbouring House of Fraser peeks above artfully arranged garden foliage – a harsh reminder of the precarious state of physical retail.
We are here as part of the unveiling of John Lewis’s freshly rebranded Oxford Street flagship store in London on Wednesday 5 September.
Complete with a monochromatic, slightly 1960s logo and a newly designed, 40,000 sq ft womenswear department that is set to lead the charge in the retailer’s battle to combat a challenging high street, the opening puts into action several pillars the retailer has been pushing – most notably, focusing on own brand, exclusives, and the development of “experience” within its stores.
Ahead of the official results announcement on 13 September, the business had already warned that it expected half-year profits to be close to zero. Nickolds is matter of fact about the struggle, but insists John Lewis has an advantage over fellow stores because of its partnership structure.
“We can play the long game,” she says. “We have the ability to think long term and invest where others are cutting back.” The addition of “& Partners” to its name this week, and the fresh design of the store reflects this approach, or, as Nickolds puts it, is “celebrating the truth of the business”.
The newly designed womenswear space is impressive: with soft lighting and minimalist fittings, it conveys the sense of easy sophistication that puts much of John Lewis’s offer above that of its competitors.
The space is less cluttered with brands than previously, and the collections are arranged in pleasingly tonal displays: soft greys blend into khaki and lilac at Modern Rarity, the retailer’s luxury in-house brand, while deep mustard and lemon yellow contrasts with pops of vibrant fuchsia in John Lewis & Partners. All of this is designed to make the shopping experience easier, and staff are trained to assist in styling if required.
The overwhelming focus is on own brand, which visibly dominates. For the 10 months to September, John Lewis has reported 10% year-on-year growth in own-brand womenswear, largely driven by the popularity of its denim brand And/Or. The own-brand dominance is far from intrusive, and the collections, fronted by the new John Lewis & Partners range, stand out for their easy design appeal.
Of the 43 brands on the womenswear floor, 44% are exclusive to John Lewis. US names Madewell and J Crew feature as newly secured exclusives. Prices across the brands sit at the upper end of the high street: own-brand collections retail at below £300 and the collections overall tap into a high street sweet spot for slightly higher-priced, good-value and premium-quality products.
In addition to the obvious physical investment, the team are keen to highlight the additional, hidden investment that has been ploughed into the business behind the scenes – for example, £3.5m into developing the beauty halls, £3m training “partners” (John Lewis staff) in “new retail skills” such as styling, events presentation and theatre.
A new “Style Studio” for personal shopping appointments and style talks, with modern sweeping oak details, flattering peachy lighting and smiling staff (impeccably dressed in the new John Lewis & Partners collection) capitalises on the retailer’s success with styling services. At the first Style Studio in Westfield London in White City, 20% of womenswear sales came from six styling partners, and 90% of customers who book appointments make purchases and on spend on average 30% more over the coming year.
Another highlight is the new “Shoe Room”, which includes a new “boutique” area, and 15 high-end brands, including Marni, Cole Haan and Sarah Jessica Parker. Complete with chic neon lighting, plush carpets and a miniature London Eye display shelf, the area rivals the footwear offering of upmarket competitors such as Liberty and Selfridges, which also house luxurious shoe “lounges”.
The womenswear floor has a plush, premium feel, but with a friendly warmth provided by collections that are just the right side of sophisticated and a design ethos that celebrates creativity and style – think mannequins dressed in clashing colours but classic silhouettes – rather than “fashion”. At first glance, it seems John Lewis has found the tricky balance between fashion and style that competitors – most notably Marks & Spencer – have been aiming to perfect for years.
The new branding and store design will be rolled out to three more stores before Christmas, including at Westfield London in White City and the soon-to-open store in Cheltenham, before it is gradually introduced across the rest of the 52-store estate.
The store is a pleasure to explore, the own-brand clothing is well designed, good quality and sensibly priced. The celebration of the “partnership” brings a human touch to the business, and in the age of anonymous online shopping and high street conglomerates this feels refreshingly charming.
John Lewis has put in a lot of investment and passion into the development of this project, and, with the Oxford Street launch, is putting its plan firmly into action. While the early signs are good, the test now will be whether the customer responds to the fresh, enticing and engaging store.