Does the John Lewis Partnership need to be saved?

Julietta Dexter, co-founder of ScienceMagic, argues that society and shopping habits have changed, and new generations have their own priorities
Julietta Dexter
John Lewis London store

One of our major, much-loved retailers is struggling, like never before.

The John Lewis Partnership, founded in 1928 by the visionary John Spedan Lewis – a true partnership model which has been, according to Mary Portas, at the very heart of the fabric of our society for over a century.

Mary and I come from a similar professional background – we’ve made a living out of building brands, we care about the community, about retail and about building businesses that matter in a better world.

Portas’s open letter to Dame Shirley White, Chair of the Group suggests that Shirley and CEO, Nish Kankiwala, have a tough job. They are not only the people “in the chair” to make sure we can still buy a lovely kettle on the high street, should we want to, but that they have to save this icon of culture and Britishness single, or rather dual-handedly.

A tough mission, in my books. Further to that, any failure of JLP would also mean a big dent in the honest, decent, and progressive “partnership” or co-op model which has been the backbone business model of something that as a nation, we’ve been very proud of. More democratic, less polarising, very often more profitable, but not always, in a world that increasingly needs models like this one for the betterment of everyone.

JLP have recently parted company with their advertising agency, Adam & Eve/DDB. A close, quite rare relationship in the advertising industry of real collaboration and friendship between client and agency. This relationship lasted 14 years: enduring value, and partnership. They gave us nurturing, warming and emotional adverts to help us enjoy Christmas. This part is most certainly part of culture.

So now what? This is not an altogether uncomplicated time in our country.

Is it fair or realistic to expect two people, and their teams, who are no doubt working all god’s hours, to sort it out alone?

It is easy to point the finger and declare our expectations but rather, how might we help? “We” the greatest multiplier of “me”. The marketing industries are full of the “community” jargon, but do they really mean in?

A few initial questions come up. Firstly, is the John Lewis Partnership the very fabric of our society, or indeed even our shopping habits of today?

My answer would be that this statement needs to be carefully explored. I accept, anecdotally, that the John Lewis Partnership has an emotive, and perhaps historical relationship with a part of British society. As a privileged, white woman who grew up abroad, any holiday trip to the UK was without question punctuated with eye-wateringly boring visits to the lamp-shade department at Peter Jones with my mother who, despite living in aesthetic, design-filled Italy, believed there really was no other way to find the wall lamp of choice.

One argument could be that society has changed, shopping habits have changed, as has the very fabric of society. Understanding who the community actually is, is step one.

Secondly, loaf, The White Company, pooky, Zara Home to name but a very few, let alone the endless online opportunities, make the current excitement of John Lewis wane somewhat. Plus, we’ve all been told we are the creators now, creatives and interior designers and we want the freedom to express our creative superpowers without having to rely on the perhaps slightly safe “look” from John Lewis. Then we can post it all on social media to show our skills to the world on top of it all.

The word “community”, as previously mentioned, has already become a much misunderstood, and overused word to identify people who really care about a brand, want to be part of it.

It has become more of a meaningless marketing word to allow well-meaning marketeers to give themselves permission to keep trying to sell stuff in a world of economic, environmental, social and political turmoil.

The cost-of-living crisis is very, very real for most of the UK’s community. Community only takes place when people gather around a shared ideal, a true sense of belonging, of familiarity, a common belief in what matters to them. They develop an emotional rather than a transactional connection.

So, if the John Lewis Partnership Community (both internal and external, for they’ve been “partners” not staff members for always), really care about the potential difficulty the JLP finds itself in, then why not find a way to mobilise the community in the quest for working this out together?

I wonder how successful it would be. My gut tells me that future generations are not so wedded to something we once loved, and this is the moment of crisis to step back and evolve the business to once again really build a sense of community around something that matters.

What would be really useful to the community? Free coffee is a great start, a Waitrose card not without its pleasures, and more of that exceptional customer service please – maybe reading rooms, somewhere to keep warm, a soup kitchen, or even using some of that retail space for schools, nurseries, creches, clubs for the more mature members of society.

I’m sure there is a way. Sharon, Nish - to show a sense of community, collaboration and camaraderie in solving big problems, ScienceMagic would love to give you some pro bono time to help out. That’s true community.

Julietta Dexter is co-founder of ScienceMagic, a strategic and creative company that partners with brands and talent to connect them to their communities, to create enduring value and build brands that matter in a better world. Its sister company ScienceMagic. Studios advises brands, talent and their communities on web3 economies and digital assets

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Julietta Dexter
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April 17, 2023