“The British high street is not dead.” So said Paula Nickolds, the managing director of John Lewis, as the department store chain prepared to unveil its 50th shop. The slick White City location, which opens today, aims to be a locus of “inspiration and discovery”, Nickolds said, as she guided a group of journalists through the glittering new outpost.
She’s also hoping the four-storey, 230,000-square-foot space, which cost £33 million to develop, will prove a blueprint for John Lewis’s fightback. This month the retailer recorded an annual downturn in results, as profit fell 77 per cent to £103.9 million in the year to the end of January. Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of John Lewis Partnership, said it had been “a challenging year”.
Bucking that trend, according to Nickolds, depends on driving customers into stores. There is “still a role for shops,” said Nickolds, “but what customers want from them is changing.” This new White City space is all about “personalised relationships”. To that end, the 500 staff have been schooled by the National Theatre in how to improve body language and communication. The shop’s personal styling team, which can text you updates as pieces they think you’ll love come into store (should you opt in to the new app service), has been trained to translate catwalk trends for customers by Lucinda Chambers, the former fashion director of British Vogue, and form John Lewis’s first 700 square foot “Style Studio”.
Efforts have also been made to make the giant space feel airy – the ceilings have been lifted to expose the industrial piping and air vents underneath – but intimate. The womenswear brands, for instance, have been merchandised on angles. “It’s a subtle difference,” says Christine Kasoulis, fashion buying director, “but it makes the offering feel more manageable.”