Now complete, the Peterborough store promises to be one of the retailer’s most ambitious store refits to date. But will significant investment to re-energise the physical retail space alone be enough to help John Lewis & Partners to maintain its relevance and popularity with shoppers? We visited Peterborough to see what lies in store for customers as the refurbishment nears its end and highlight why a renewed focus on re-establishing the once superlative John Lewis service offer could be more important than any aesthetic changes.
It’s no secret that many big name department stores are struggling. The fallout is being felt in cities across the UK, including Peterborough. Beales recently announced the closure of its store in the city centre after the business fell into administration – the result of a long-running decline in its fortunes. But there is also positive news to be found.
The store […] represents the latest addition to the retailer’s growing list of ‘experiential’ stores.
John Lewis & Partners are one of the oldest tenants in city’s Queensgate Centre. A significant anchor store, it is a big footfall draw and a popular, much-loved place for people in the city to shop, meet and socialise. But this 37-year-old veteran department store was beginning to look ‘tired’ and undoubtedly in need of the comprehensive update it is now receiving. The store has recently been fully refurbished and represents the latest addition to the retailer’s growing list of ‘experiential’ stores.
What’s instore? First off, a reduction in overall space. The refurbished store is said to be losing 40 per cent of none-selling space to make way for a new multiplex cinema – part of a wider £60m extension and renovation plan by the management company of Peterborough’s Queensgate Centre.
During the refurbishment, the excess retail space was still in use and offered a clear comparison between the new, with a radical change in space, layout and store design, and the John Lewis of old. Gone are the days of monotonous stained beige carpet, scuffed tiled walkways and flat, dull fluorescent lighting – replaced by a more sophisticated aesthetic with wooden flooring, bright decoration and accent colour, seating areas and large format POS and digital imagery.
Will these new immersive elements connect with the customers in smaller provisional cities?
Rising customer expectations demand improved facilities, new lifestyle and social experiences and expert support and service from retailers. In response, John Lewis & Partners opted not to expand its retail estate (currently 36 UK stores) and instead divert investment into upgrading existing stores with a bold new ‘experiential agenda’. An example of which can be found in its recently refurbished Southampton store. Many of these changes are not new to the company, but they remain very much in the ‘trial’ stage. Will these new immersive elements connect with the customers in smaller provisional cities?
Back in Peterborough, The Experience Desk – a familiar feature of the new John Lewis & Partners store concept – is once again present. As a space, it is welcoming and slows the pace, allowing shoppers to pause, take stock and to re-orientate and focus on their shopping mission. It should also provide an opportunity for Partners to shine. But it’s only as useful as the availability and quality of staff help on offer. During several of my recent visits, both of these were found lacking…
Adjacent to this, is a new beauty department – The Benito Brow bar; a Mediterranean inspired café – Ori; and an instore optician, operated by David Clulow. There is no doubt that these are all valuable additions to make the retailer a true destination. While overall the retailer has done a great job of unifying the store, Ori café feels somewhat disjointed. With little thought seemingly given to how customers will use the company’s ‘My John Lewis’ vouchers for complimentary coffee etc., the result has the potential to disappoint: an easy fix, surely?
Womenswear is predominately own-brand. Though a clear customer focus is evident, has it narrowed its audience too much? By reducing those big designer brands, it could be argued that it is missing opportunities and could lose its authority within the centre. There is new kit and fixtures, which do a good job of bringing the department together. But the store could quickly look dated. Collections also lack definition and newness as a result of poor styling and innovation in focal displays.
The secluded ‘Sleep Room’ is a basic but calm space – a chance for customer to try the beds away from the busy shop floor. Following in the footsteps of disruptors such as Casper, the result is a clean, fresh and relevant bedding department, with tactile material samples and engaging, descriptive POS.
Peterborough is also the first store to have the ‘World of Design’ concept – a creative space to test and build interior combinations using paint, wallpaper and carpet samples. The department offers of a 90-minute free consultation, with expert design advice. The aim is to make customers feel like an interior designer, helping them to shape a colour palette and design theme for rooms. On several visits, however, Partners I spoke to lacked subject knowledge. This does the design service an injustice. Putting this right will decide whether it proves to be a short-lived ‘gimmick’ or a service that can deliver on its undoubted potential.
In contrast to the children’s Toy department section, which lacks energy, the kid’s footwear department is a vibrant and fun space to resonate with the younger audience. The space is let down however by the volume of piled shoeboxes that block. The result is a space that makes what otherwise would be an engaging space look cluttered and uninviting.
Now is the time […] to place greater investment focus on developing and supporting store retail teams
Thanks to the store’s transformation, many departments are now bursting with originality and interest. Yes, some have been modernised, though not fully developed. Overall though, the high investment made to re-energise a busy and well-established physical retail store must be recognised.
But will the introduction of a modernised ‘look and feel’ alone be enough? In short, the answer is no. My experiences instore are likely to mirror those of customers. So with the refit coming to an end, now is the time for the retailer to place greater investment focus on developing and supporting store retail teams.
People will always remember good service and positive experiences over an attractive environment
Every new department has ‘customer assistance’ at the heart of its thinking (if not in reality). The opportunities that could exist for engaged Partners and service excellence to help differentiate the brand are most evident within nursery products. With the general decline of competitive mother and baby retailers, offering expert support within a trusted retail name is a golden opportunity for the business to begin long-lasting customer relationships – seeing families grow with the brand as they grow, and making the store their first choice.
Put simply, investment in ‘things’ alone will not be rewarded by positive sentiment from shoppers. People will always remember good service and positive experiences over an attractive environment.
If the business is to ensure that the store (and brand) maintain its relevance and popularity with shoppers, then re-establishing the retailer’s once superlative service offer, not just the prioritising aesthetic and cosmetic changes, will be the real measure of how much the John Lewis & Partners customer experience has truly been transformed.
View our Store Gallery of John Lewis & Partners Peterborough here.