OPINION - John Lewis’s problems go far deeper than just Sharon White

Dame Sharon White announced her departure after a short and turbulent period at the helm of John Lewis  (Pr handout)
Dame Sharon White announced her departure after a short and turbulent period at the helm of John Lewis (Pr handout)

John Lewis is a doughty symbol of London retail, but that does not guarantee it a bricks-and-mortar future. Gamages on Holborn traded in everything from toys to supplying the army with catapults during the First World War, but was an anachronism in swinging London by the Seventies, while Dickins & Jones was a pillar of Sloaney London until it expired in the Cool Britannia of 2007. House of Fraser shut down its London store last year.

When John Lewis opened its modernist palace in the Sixties, the winged figure statue which graces its Holles Street side was supplied by the great sculptor Barbara Hepworth — a symbol of elevation and urban excitement of the time.

This week, its chair, Dame Sharon White, announced her departure after a short and turbulent period at the helm. Waitrose, the temple of middle-class groceries under the same partnership umbrella, also fights its corner in the supermarket wars, assailed by nimble, often cheaper competitors. Together, they have proved to be a hard act to manage.

Serving as the shortest chair of the employee-owned business is a cruel blow to a highflier from the civil service, via a top role at Ofcom. A successor may be a part-time incumbent, in order to attract a big hitter with a more effective turnaround plan. White was also the victim of the culture which tempted her to the role in the first place — the mutualism model of co-ownership had its Noughties moment as a centrist ideal to combine commerce and employee buy-in. “Happier people, happier business, a happier world”, as the (slightly jarring) slogan puts it. Losses in the region of £234 million do not promote much joy, however, and changes inevitably follow.

Large retail venues need to be hubs for people to meet as well as shopping destinations

Any successor, however visionary and decisive, will have his or her work cut out. It’s too easy to see online retail via the Amazon behemoth and others as the reason iconic stores fail. But Marks & Spencer, at the other end of Oxford Street, is buzzing these days in a way that John Lewis is clearly not, because its food offering is considerably better than the cramped Waitrose with its pallid meat and fish in the John Lewis basement — and M&S has revived its clothing for men and women (if you can bear lime green, this is your season, ladies).

John Lewis never felt like a place that loved the clothes it sold, apart from sensible school footwear.

It’s emphatically not only White’s fault that the online offer has been inadequate — that shortfall in planning and supply precedes her, as does the rise of household goods companies with sharper websites and faster delivery times. But a company known for household goods which has major shortages of them sheds even its customers, of which I was one.

It feels like an old lover. But when you need a new fridge to fit a space and find nothing, the washing machine goes kaput and the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” dominates the home department, emotion counts for very little.

At some point, reality must dawn on a business which prizes its sharing model — namely, that it also needs investment from outside to thrive, even if that waters down some of its mutualist commitments, but negotiating that trade-off was not something White could deliver.

To sell that message (and a lot more attractive products with it), John Lewis and its Sloane Square sibling Peter Jones need to address weaknesses head on. Large retail venues need to be hubs for people to meet as well as shopping destinations.

The roof garden bar in Oxford Street is aptly described as “secret” by one website, which is a hardly a triumph of marketing for a bar.

The restaurant food is grim — the stodge of bygone quiches and limp salads in an era of zingy Leon lunches and sushi havens.

Where other businesses have rediscovered heritage as a point of attractiveness, the eponymous London HQ ignores the Hepworth and modernist legacy entirely.

Yet there should be plenty of life in the place yet. It’s a cracking location and its Sixties design makes it adaptable, in a way that grander retail buildings are not. It is just one part of a complex national business which desperately needs a radical rethink, but also a haunt that should feel like a place to meet, dine and browse, as well as the origin of pots pans and prams.

Good luck to whoever takes up the John Lewis baton now. Central London needs its stalwart shops. Just remember how many of them are now located in retail Valhalla.

Anne McElvoy is a columnist and executive editor of Politico