When young West Country draper John Lewis opened his first small store, at 132 Oxford Street in 1864, he could hardly have known the impact he would have on British retailing.
There are few institutions as venerable or influential, both in terms of its financial success and its business model, as the John Lewis Partnership. This week JLP celebrates its 150th anniversary.
This year the business – including Waitrose, its grocery arm – revealed that gross sales had broken the £10bn barrier for the first time as turnover rose 6.6%, a testament to the growing demand for John Lewis product and its omnichannel approach to selling.
Just as important, though, was how the company celebrated this with its 91,000 staff – every full-time employee, known as a partner, picked up a 15% bonus, equivalent to eight weeks’ pay. This co-operative approach was spearheaded by Lewis’s son John Spedan Lewis, who shortened the working day, created staff committees so those on the shop floor could have a say in the business, and began a system of pooled sales commissions as an incentive scheme.
This later turned into the profit-sharing system we see today, which has been in place for nearly 100 years.
Partners will play an important part in this year’s celebrations, with events set to take place up and down the country, according to Lucy Ramseyer, business lead on the project, who adds that the “partner element is huge for us”. Activities including live music events will also “thank our customers for getting us through the last 150 years”.
The jewel in the crown is an interactive exhibition at the Oxford Street flagship that opens to the public on May 2, in which shoppers will be taken from John Lewis’s origins into the future. Ramseyer says the anniversary will be half historical and half future gazing – although without making any firm predictions about life150 years from now.
Tracking down the historical side of the story has been John Lewis archivist Judy Faraday, who runs the company’s heritage centre in Cookham, Berkshire.
“She’s been incredible, working with all the teams to unpack all those stories,” says Ramseyer. “Over 150 years there is a huge amount to be told.”
The jigsaw pieced together includes more than 30,000 different archived fabrics, some of which will
be used in exclusive fashion and homeware collections.
Among those are ranges already revealed in last week’s Drapers, including an exclusive capsule collection based on vintage prints by textile designer Lucienne Day, Orla Kiely’s first menswear collection and a range created by design duo Antoni & Alison.
The10-piece Lucienne Day range includes retro dresses and blouses with outer seam detailing, a 1950s-inspired A-line shirt dress, short-sleeved shirting and tailored trousers. The 10-piece Antoni & Alison collection draws on John Lewis’s art and photography archive to create 1960s- and 1950s-inspired 100% silk dresses with vintage brooch appliqué, each costing £150. Orla Kiely will also unveil her first menswear line as part of the celebrations, with prices ranging from £25 to £95.
There is also a selection of gadgets from the near future – facial-recognition TV, for example, and a posture-improving chair – as well as a glimpse of the Birmingham store that will demonstrate what the next few years hold.
For managing director Andy Street, it is this combination of modern thinking and sticking to its founding principles that has turned John Lewis into one of the longest-lasting retailers on the high street: “The pace of change has really ramped up – we have changed more in the past 10 years than ever before – and technology is now driving change. How it will change I don’t know, but the important thing is that we are willing to adapt. What isn’t going to change is our trading principles.”
Street says the most poignant part of going through the last 150 years of the business has been to learn just how involved it had been in design innovation.
“I knew bits of what we’d done but I didn’t know quite what authority we’d had,” he said. “John Lewis was almost like a mirror of taste in Britain. We have always been very proud of our design heritage, but I wasn’t entirely confident of that until I saw it all laid out in one.”
Although the celebrations look back to John Lewis’s past, Street says customers will be in no doubt that the retailer is looking forward – but exactly what the future holds is not yet written: “This is a brand that has constantly reinvented itself, but we just don’t know what is around the corner. That’s not me trying to be dim, but the whole point is that we don’t know. We will want to see customer reactions to things; perhaps that will guide our thinking.”