Interview: Barry Blamire, head of John Lewis Edinburgh

For Barry Blamire the consolation prize for the difficult transition period will be a completely refurbished department store. Picture: Ian Georgeson
For Barry Blamire the consolation prize for the difficult transition period will be a completely refurbished department store. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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IF THE prospect of four years of demolition, drilling and rubble is giving Barry Blamire some restless nights then it doesn’t readily show. Indeed, the head of John Lewis’s vast Edinburgh emporium, which will form the linchpin of the £850 million St James retail and leisure scheme, appears to relish the challenges and opportunities that await him and his 600-odd workforce during one of Scotland’s largest urban redevelopment projects.

Plans for a new commercial quarter in the capital’s east end have been in the offing for a decade and come May the wrecking ball will finally be let loose on the unloved Brutalist shopping mall and offices that became part of the New Town skyline in the early 1970s.

This is a fantastic opportunity, but we want to emphasise we will remain open

Under owner TH Real Estate’s vision this prime city centre site connecting the east end of Princes Street and Multrees Walk with the upper reaches of Leith Walk will rise from the ashes to provide four floors of shops, cafés and restaurants, a multi-screen arthouse cinema, five-star hotel, up to 250 residential apartments and some 1,600 car parking spaces. The scheme was given the go-ahead last July, with the controversial “ribbon” hotel at its core granted permission the following month.

Developers are said to be targeting at least one Michelin-starred restaurant as part of a bid to ensure the centre’s overall offering is as high quality as possible. TH Real Estate is owned by TIAA-CREF, a Fortune 100 behemoth with some £584 billion of assets under management.

When the ribbon is cut some time in spring 2020, John Lewis’s flagship Scottish branch will be the anchor attraction in the retail element of “Edinburgh St James” – the largest of almost 90 units totalling some 850,000 square feet.

Between now and then, the department store will be the sole survivor of the bulldozers, fighting to retain its prominence on the Edinburgh retail scene amid massive upheaval.

Cumbria-born Blamire admits it will be a challenge convincing customers old and new that it is business as usual, and remains uncertain of the impact on shop takings.

“It is a difficult one to judge but there will be a significant enough impact,” he says, while stressing that the St James project marks “a fantastic opportunity both for the city and John Lewis”.

“We are fully supportive of the scheme and we want to emphasise to our loyal customers that we will remain open,” he adds.

Relationships between the project’s backers and the partnership that bears the John Lewis name and also runs the Waitrose supermarket chain have not always been so amicable.

Last November, the company dropped its objection to the redevelopment and removed its threat to quit the city. It had warned that it could pull the plug on its Edinburgh branch – one of only three the group operates in Scotland – in a row over plans to curtail its space during the construction phase.

Bosses claimed the loss of around 53,000 sq ft of retail space would have an “unacceptably severe” impact on the store and meant it could not keep trading. Insiders said at the time that the firm was likely to have been “playing hardball” with the developer in order to extract the best possible deal.

Having kissed and made up, the resultant impact on trading space will be less drastic than originally feared, though the current 160,000 sq ft will reduce to some 130,000 sq ft during the period of reconstruction. The John Lewis faithful will be rewarded, ultimately, with a new look from “top to bottom”, and an expansion to around 165,000 sq ft.

“One of the most significant things we will be doing this year is creating a new selling floor on level five,” notes Blamire. “We are opening a new ‘Place to Eat’ restaurant on this level, offering even more fantastic views and a new consumer electronics department up there as well. Although we will be trading from a smaller footprint we will be bringing new concepts in.

“At the end of the project we regain space where we join the mall with three entrances on different levels, and we will be trading from up to 165,000 sq ft of space.”

Among the initial changes taking place is the replacement of the revolving doors that provide an entry point from Leith Street. The cause of frequent temporary breakdowns as over-eager shoppers, and pushchairs, get caught in its sweep, the entrance will reopen this week sporting a set of double sliding doors. An additional customer entrance is due to open in the summer further up Leith Street, while the side entry to the kitchenware section remains.

“There has been an initial phase which has seen us do some enabling works in the store, while making sure we meet fire regulation standards,” explains Blamire, who seemed destined for a career in retail after holding down a weekend job selling fruit and veg on a market stall while at school.

“Then there are the works that will start when the centre closes for a period of about 12 months when we will move departments around. That will mean going down to 130,000 sq ft, taking space from support areas. All of the existing departments will be remaining, but some of them will be trading from a smaller footprint.”

The store boss makes assurances that staffing levels will remain as they are, with no redundancies planned among the 640-strong workforce.

“Where we have some additional human resource we can plough it into the project changes and to provide additional assistance to customers,” he says.

Last week, the partnership, which is owned by the employees – or “partners” – of John Lewis and Waitrose, reported a drop in pre-tax profits before exceptional items to £305.5 million for the 52 weeks to the end of January, compared with £342.7m the year before.

As a consequence, more than 90,000 workers will see their staff bonuses cut to 10 per cent of their annual salary. The payout was cut for the third year in a row after staff were handed 11 per cent last year, 15 per cent the year before and 17 per cent in 2013.

However, chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield said the group had delivered a “healthy trading performance” and bolstered market share amid challenging trading conditions.

“Market conditions were challenging through the year with deflation in grocery of –2.6 per cent and subdued demand in non-food,” he said.

“Quality, value and product innovation were therefore all the more important alongside greater convenience and service. Our partners performed well on all those fronts and did so while controlling costs tightly and increasing margin.”

Like-for-like sales at the core department store business grew 3.1 per cent, buoyed by a surge in online trading. There was growth in sales and market share across fashion, home and electricals and home technology. Fashion was up 6.2 per cent, with menswear sales growing 8.8 per cent and womenswear climbing 6.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, the customer appetite for the group’s click-and-collect service continues to strengthen, with collection of John Lewis orders from Waitrose stores up 19 per cent.

Blamire expects the balance of trade in Edinburgh to swing towards online during the inevitable disruption caused by the looming changes.

The partnership, which runs 46 John Lewis stores across the UK and more than 340 Waitrose supermarkets, also used last week’s results to highlight the investment it was continuing to make in its expanding store estate, including Edinburgh.

“There is a significant multi-million pound investment going into this development from the John Lewis point of view,” observes Blamire.

“The shop will be fully refurbished from top to bottom before the centre opens. That will allow us to look at new John Lewis concepts, and introduce a contemporary look and feel with new products and services. John Lewis has always been a destination store in its own right.”

CURRICULUM VITAE:

Job: Head of branch, John Lewis Edinburgh

Born: Kendal, Cumbria, 1974

Education: Queen Elizabeth School, Kirkby Lonsdale and University of Newcastle upon Tyne

First job: Saturday job on a market stall selling fruit and vegetables

What car do you drive: Volvo XC60

Favourite mode of transport: Flying, preferably outward bound at the start of a great holiday

Can’t live without: My wife and two daughters

Favourite place: A difficult choice between the English Lake District and the Northumberland coast, but the coast just wins

Best thing about your job: The people. I’m very fortunate to work with a fabulous team.