It is fitting that there are signs for Buckingham Palace situated outside John Lewis Head Office in London Victoria, as the department store group has become something approaching retail royalty in the last few years.
By establishing itself in such a powerful position in the sector, the retailer that was always been regarded as the industry bellwether has inevitably moved ahead of the crowd.
Director of Retail Operations at John Lewis Andrew Murphy agrees, telling Retail Gazette this week: “There is nothing about us that is a retail bellwether.
“Like many people I used to bounce along with this notion, but if you look back the last few years you’ll see different patterns emerging.
“We suffered as much as anybody when the recession began but in the months since it has been clear there is nothing about us that could describe us in this way.
“If you took John Lewis as the bellwether, you would be significantly overestimating the strength of British retail.”
Statistics back up this claim, with John Lewis’s 28 department stores earlier this month reporting the biggest percentage increase in sales of any seven-day period this financial year.
Total sales for the week to January 8th rose 38.7 per cent compared to the same period one year before, which followed a couple of landmark achievements around Christmas, including a record day of sales (£27.8 million) on December 27th and a record week of revenues (£121 million) in the seven days to December 18th.
“Our challenge now is to stay away from being seen as an industry bellwether,” Murphy adds.
The Retail Operations Director is someone who knows John Lewis through and through, having worked at the partnership for 18 years in a number of different roles.
He joined the company straight from university and started out in various management positions in his home country of Scotland before venturing south of the border, where he first worked in the High Wycombe store, then in London’s Oxford Street and finally at the partnership’s Newcastle branch.
Head Office beckoned and he took on positions at this level prior to returning to Scotland, where he was made Managing Director (MD) of John Lewis Aberdeen in 2002, MD of the Edinburgh store one year later and joint MD of both outlets in 2007.
Two years ago Murphy was appointed Director of Operational Development, where he reported to the man who he eventually replaced as Retail Operations Director in the spring of 2010.
“I was in the fortunate position that I worked for the previous Retail Operations Director Gareth Thomas, who announced his retirement last year.
“Taking on the role, from a functional view, was a very natural step.”
The board member admits that his time in the current role has coincided with some fantastic growth at John Lewis, and has been a fun challenge.
But what is driving this growth and what is John Lewis doing differently to make it one of the standout retail performers of the last 12 months? Nothing particularly different to before appears to be the answer, although Murphy credits the retailer’s buying team for the vital role it plays in the overall business model.
“Most of the reasons why we have been successful are to do with things that have been constant in our business over time,” he explains.
“These aren’t new things we’ve discovered - they are things we learned to make more of - and our brand has certainly found its voice.
“There has been an emerging synergy with the mood of the nation and what we are offering.”
Challenges facing the industry in the months ahead are well documented, with consumer confidence expected to be low as the government’s austerity measures begin to bite and many fashion retailers passing on increased material costs to customers.
Murphy agrees that everyone will be affected by economic forces asserting pressure on the sector, with the impact of inflation and potentially higher interest rates apparently posing more of a concern than this month’s VAT rise.
“Our expectations are not vastly different to anyone else, but we are budgeting for growth,” he said.
“However, we certainly expect the next 12 months to be harder fight than the last 18 months.”
And with an evolving high street, which is fighting hard to stay relevant to people’s changing attitudes to retail, John Lewis is set to remain a high achiever despite around 70 per cent of its portfolio residing on these very streets.
“The demise of mid-ranking high street retail is to be regretted, but it doesn’t affect us on a large scale at all as we are not in any sense overexposed - we have 28 department stores in prime locations.
“It’s the demise of the high streets that do not have a sufficient conurbation to support them or don’t have that vital point of difference, which isn’t where we are.”
It may often seem that John Lewis, like Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way, but there is always room for improvement in such a fast-changing industry, and Murphy is certainly not naïve enough to let the partnership rest on its laurels.
New training modules are planned for staff in the year ahead and there will be a strong focus on improving its delivery services further as an increasing number of people order goods online.
And like most retailers in Britain today John Lewis is trying to find its feet in the multichannel world, which will involve interlinking the different parts of the operation, such as m-commerce, johnlewis.com and click and collect services.
Murphy has been at John Lewis since 1992, and is himself an example of the well-documented high staff retention rate the partnership boasts compared to other firms in the industry.
“I got very lucky finding the right employer at the first time of asking,” he states, adding that John Lewis has a strong focus on employee development.
It also appears the company benefits from allowing staff to share in the financial success of the retailer by making them partners in the firm.
With customers evidently very happy, the workforce content and senior management oozing confidence, is it any wonder that business is booming at John Lewis?