Is it game over for department stores? Retailer John Lewis believes not. It’s setting out to turn shopping into an experience with the launch of its new retail concept, opening up a world of possibilities (including beauty treatments, cookery demonstrations, and a concierge service) along the way.
John Lewis has been making a big play of its new ‘experiential concept’ shopping in recent months. I went to unpick how the retailer is reimagining the department store model, taking in a tour of its latest offering in White City and Oxford. So how does the experience rate? Differently. But not necessarily in the way you’d expect.
Never knowingly off-brand
The first thing to say is that, despite the much-publicised push towards embracing this new concept, the stores are still very recognisably ‘John Lewis’. I’m a seasoned John Lewis customer, and within their walls I still found all the key elements that I’ve come to know and love over the years. And that’s not a bad thing.
Excellent product information is still a priority in many departments and the ethos behind their attitude to staffing is prevalent. High-level displays are still creative and unmistakably on-brand. While cash desks, although more creative looking, still have the brand’s essence of efficiency mixed with good design. The new concept gives customers the comfort of everything they expect from the brand, and then some. Overall, it’s a more sophisticated, modern and desirable version of their established look.
What’s in store?
Its new ‘experiential concept’ is designed to help revive the department store model. With a careful eye for detail, the skilfully designed and lovingly curated John Lewis White City store has certainly been set up as a shining example of what’s possible.
Every floor features demonstrations, services, sensory VM, exploratory shop fits or self-discovery to actively engage shoppers. From a kitchen area set up for demonstrations to free donuts, causing a queue around the entire floor – this is a store that will undoubtedly get customers spend far more time instore than they previously would have. The ‘Experience’ desk is the hub for all of this with eager staff advising how to get involved and which event is next, so that you don’t miss out. It’s certainly a far cry from the unimaginative approach of some within the sector that have simply turned to coffee and pastries for salvation.
The new ethos in bricks and mortar retail of ‘curating’ collections is also evident. Its own collection ‘The Edit’ is celebrated front and centre instore, while the women’s department felt far more eclectic than is typical of John Lewis. ‘Scrapbook style’ displays featured behind service desks – encouraging customers to put their own look together – were ever-present, as were coordinated VM principles.
But it’s the additional services on offer within the new concept that are the key selling point. From an optician to a beauty salon and a customer collection lounge – there is wow factor all over these. What’s more, it delivers leisure and hospitality levels of customer service standards, ensuring that everything you could need is under one roof and nothing is too much trouble. In Oxford, however, these services felt more informative and functional. Efficient yes, but hardly aspirational. And herein lies the biggest challenge for John Lewis as it moves forward.
Different, in a good way?
As customers who have experienced the iteration of this new direction within the retailer’s Oxford store will testify, the bigger challenge is likely to be one of consistency of concept delivery. The White City store looked premium at all times, whereas Oxford looked like just another store, and one that could definitely benefit for more care and attention. When I visited ‘The Experience Desk’ in Oxford it had been left unmanned – very much a minimum requirement for what is billed as a ‘concierge’ service.
Here, it felt like an obligatory nod to experiential shopping, but not one that had been enthusiastically embraced internally. The ‘What’s On’ board was just as lacklustre and when general instore staff were stopped and questioned, it was clear that they hadn’t been briefed as to what was going on in store. The focal points in Oxford also felt inferior to those in White City, both in terms of theatre and allocated space. Focal points seamed a priority in White City with every turn delivering more impact and display. In Oxford they were sadly lacking and where it was implemented: underwhelming.
The difference in the two stores can be most evidently summed up in their approach to mannequin styling, specifically within the menswear departments. White City showed interesting layers with coordinated accessories and impactful positioning and grouping that complemented the products. Oxford’s mannequins looked basic, neglected and uninspiring.
Is this new concept top-drawer? Yes. It will certainly entice new visitors, and its White City store promises them an all-round experience that few of the retailer’s peers are currently not even close to replicating, as they battle to define how they will revive their own department store concept. But there was a distinct difference in retail standards in both stores I visited. If John Lewis is to keep shoppers coming back time after time then, in its Oxford store at least, even it still has some further work to do if it is to turn this promising concept into a genuine game-changer.