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Interview: John Lewis’ Head of Format Development Tim Harrison


Bearing in mind this week’s LDC figures on shop vacancy rates and the North/South divide, why were Exeter, York and Chelmsford chosen for this initial phase of growth?

We don’t have that many shops so it is a case of considering what our current coverage in the UK looks like and what the gaps in that coverage are. When looking to the future, we are thinking about the macroeconomic situation,for those regions. As a result of my remit it is much easier for me to look at target locations. Having said that, there are certain centres that I look at and think have either been underinvested in or are being underinvested in over time.

Exeter is a really great example of a town which has been completely committed to focusing on its city centre and the amount of investment going on now is huge. Right now, there is work going on in that town to ensure that as a retail centre, it has got something for consumers. That has been thought about and retailers have been asked what needs to be done ahead of work starting. In line with that, the Council makes sure that the retailer mix is one which is very credible and which will bring customers to it.

York is slightly different; unlocking York has been incredibly different as there is a strong heritage in the city centre, a lot of history to it and to get into that city centre was extremely hard. Though this is often the way with growth strategy and shows how opportunity aligns with that as well. We know we want to be in that part of Yorkshire but we must look at how opportunities unlock themselves and how quickly we can do that. We have been working with York for a number of years with our old formats and with our new formats it meant that opportunities were available more easily.

Chelmsford is a great example of somewhere that is making a big step forward in terms of investment in the city as well and we accept that it is like good retailing; if we have good products and present these to our customers they will buy them and exactly the same is true of retail shops. If you put a good collection of shops in a really nice retail environment and it beats off the competition then you are going to attract more customers; it’s relatively straightforward stuff. Those have been three great examples of places that we have worked closely with but also taken the bull by the horns and got a good strategy to make sure that we have a good retail future. That is the real challenge as it’s not just about the here and now and making sure that you’re taking cash but actually being certain that customers are going to want to come in the long-term to your centre and we need to make sure it is sustainable, which is a real challenge.

What factors are taken into consideration when making expansion plans?

The first thing has got to be the gap in the market; what does our offering currently look like and how many shops do we need going forward in a very challenging and dynamic retail environment? All retailers are looking at that and asking themselves that question but we know that we don’t cover all our customers by any stretch of the imagination so for us there is a real opportunity. We look to find the market opportunity first and then within that, what are the best centres and which best suit you.

There are a number of centres where we have not necessarily gone with the prime location in terms of current trading but actually we have a great trading operation. Swindon and Poole are great examples of where we have taken in one case a brand new retail centre and made it very successful. So it is about making a sustainable centre through working with landlords and the Council.

Why was Exeter chosen as the location for your first pop-up and what feedback has there been from locals on the store as well as the upcoming flexible format unit?

It has been phenomenal and a very exciting time for everyone involved in the pop-up shop. The reaction from partners involved in the process who have had to work in such a different way within such a quick timeframe has been very exciting. The reaction of customers has been phenomenal on site and actually it has been great to engage with them before we open the shop. We can explain the products we have in the shop and what makes John Lewis different so they have been really engaged with it from day one. It’s early days and we are absolutely thrilled. It’s a really good opportunity to raise excitement and make sure that the people of Exeter understand what we are doing and how it is running. We can do this in a number of ways through marketing but actually one of the best marketing tools we have are our partners and having them there talking to the customers has made such a difference. The way they are able to engage, touch and feel the product and, in the modern world the fact that you can start doing click & collect now so that the product can be delivered to Exeter just helps launch the shop when it opens.

Why was this flexible format chosen to be rolled out now and how will this improve your overall offering?

The beauty of the flexible format is that it allows us to take a variety of sizes of unit so it’s back to this point about where the strategy and opportunity align together. The flexible format gives us many more viable opportunities and shows us how customers are using omnichannel and the internet and how they use it both in shops and at home and how they research products. This allows us to alter the size of the department and how and what we show in a way that optimises the site so that we can fit a full John Lewis proposition into a variety of sizes of shop. When we started with Exeter we thought if we stretched it we could make it work for us and it has been a phenomenal effort to get the shop open as quickly as we have but also designed and built up on a completely new format as quickly as it has been. York we will just go bigger again; there is 100,000 sq ft of selling space in York and that will be fantastic.

The original work has all been done here by our Format Development teams with some design help from externals and the size of the shop, operating model and the size of the branch involves a lot of internal work. However, this was always a conversion of an existing scheme and that’s why I am so thrilled with the work that has been done converting this into a brand new scheme with a brand new design that will look absolutely stunning.

Published on Thursday 06 September by Editorial Assistant

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