Bold plans: Pippa Wicks is known for turning round firms
It’s a Wednesday morning in London and John Lewis boss Pippa Wicks is evidently pleased with what she sees. Despite dire warnings of economic gloom as energy bills and food prices rise, her shop on Sloane Square, which trades under the name Peter Jones, is buzzing.
Demand for summer fashion soared earlier this year as party-starved shoppers flocked back to stores to update their wardrobes after a series of lockdowns.
The rekindled habit of buying new clothes the old-fashioned way – in stores – appears to have continued into the autumn season despite fears confidence would stall.
‘Our shops are doing really well – you can see that,’ says Wicks, with a quick tally of the crowds. ‘I’ve just come from the Oxford Street store, where they told me fashion sales are above what they were in 2019 [before Covid disrupted sales].’
Closed shops during the pandemic were a boon for online retailers – including John Lewis’s own website. It undoubtedly delivered a fatal blow to many high streets.
But Wicks says: ‘It’s been interesting just how much customers want to come back into stores. They want us to give them clothing advice. To chat to the beauty consultant. They want to try things on and have a day out.’
So the cost of living crisis hasn’t hit shoppers hard yet?
‘I think it’s coming,’ she warns, citing Bank of England data that recently revealed credit card debt is rising at its fastest rate in 17 years. ‘That’s usually a precursor for tightening spend. I think it’s going to get tougher through the autumn.’
As we walk, staff weave past carrying products and fittings to prepare the new season ranges – including a major relaunch of John Lewis’s own-brand clothing this month.
The more ‘stylish’ and price-competitive collection is the latest element of a major overhaul of the department store group under Wicks, who arrived two years ago to help revive the chain’s fortunes – and avoid the fate of former rivals BHS and Debenhams.
John Lewis has already undergone major surgery since Covid struck. It closed 16 stores and, in March last year, revealed the painful news that its annual partnership bonus had been scrapped for the first time since 1953.
Wicks is not leaving the chain’s fortunes to fate.
The businesswoman, a self-confessed turnaround guru, worked on a revival of BHS before its 1990s heyday. Latterly, she was number two at The Co-operative Group, having been parachuted in after the ‘Crystal Methodist’ bank scandal that almost sank the entire food-to-funerals mutual.
One of her first acts at John Lewis was to launch Anyday for the more price-conscious customer.
From this month, a refreshed John Lewis label under a new design team will, she says, offer a cheaper alternative to the more expensive brands it sits alongside, such as Ted Baker. ‘It [the own label] had become a bit tired – a little bit left on the side. We’ve improved the fashionability and taken it to the next level,’ she says.
She expects the improvements will encourage shoppers to ‘mix and match’ its own label with more expensive brands, to get more for their money and ‘help with the energy bill a bit’. She also wants to get people in stores more regularly.
John Lewis last week unveiled a new campaign – ‘for all life’s moments’.
‘It’s clear we’re loved for all the big moments in customers’ lives: Christmas, Halloween, weddings, having a baby.
‘But customers are asking us to do more for the everyday moments which they cherish more now – exacerbated by Covid when people began to appreciate those other times that don’t necessarily cost a lot.’
She says that includes dinner parties, having your friends round to watch the football – but also ‘how do I get a good night’s sleep?’ John Lewis is preparing a new test store that will be organised around such ‘moments’, while more space is allocated in existing shops to show off products – for fashion, room sets and eye-catching ‘showcases’ in central areas near the entrances.
Two years ago, Wicks was preparing to travel the world for a year after her stint at the Co-op. The highlight was to be a return to her most beloved destination, Bhutan.
Then she bumped into John Lewis Partnership chairwoman Sharon White at a dinner party, who asked her to meet and talk about what she had done at the Co-op.
‘We had a cup of tea and at the end she said, ‘Can we persuade you perhaps to consider not doing your gap year travelling?’
Having worked at the Co-op, owned by its members, she confesses she was intrigued by the John Lewis Partnership structure and what she calls the ‘democratic voice’. A radical plan for change, drawn up by White, Wicks and the team, has been created – from a new venture building homes to an ambitious range of financial services. It has been testing out a rapid four-hour approval for loans – many at £5,000 to £7,000 – which are now expected to launch in the spring.
But a recent switch to a new provider for its credit card has left some loyal customers frustrated to say the least. John Lewis insists 96 per cent of customers have not been affected. But those hit by slashed credit limits and altered rates – some the result of updated affordability tests – are being dealt with ‘case by case’, says Wicks.
‘Every customer matters to us – and we can see a few of them are quite vocal.’
Perhaps even more alarming than such mis-steps is the nagging feeling that in-store sales will, over the long term, continue to drift online.
Startlingly, £6 in every £10 spent at John Lewis is online – up from £4 before the first lockdown. The high street is ‘challenged’, she says. But there are ‘no plans’ to close any more of its 34 outlets. ‘I don’t think retail is back to a normal [post-Covid] yet and I don’t think we know what the new normal looks like.
I don’t think there is any need to rush and do crazy things. We’re helping each store to be the best it can.
‘At John Lewis, we can see in the customer numbers and from surveys that people are really happy with what we’re doing. There are some lovely green shoots there.’
And the future for town centres? She says: ‘There are high streets that have really held up well and, I think, in a couple of years we’ll see things coming back. We will come through this as a country.’