How John Lewis remains a key part of the community despite shrinking its branches - comment

When we first opened John Lewis on Aberdeen’s George Street in 1989, John Lewis Partners were excited to welcome Aberdonians into our most northerly store, and to take their place as part of a vibrant city centre.

John Lewis wants its building on Aberdeen's George Street to keep playing a productive role in civic life. Picture: John Lewis

Three years later, I walked through its doors to join this great business, with no notion that a few years later I’d meet my future wife working in its sports department, then leave the shop only to proudly return as head of branch in 2004. As is the case for many Aberdonians, this shop and its customers and partners are tightly stitched into the fabric of my life. Department stores – these vertical village communities on our high streets – have that sort of impact on people’s lives.

Back then, retailing was a simpler prospect. The shop – although modest in scale by John Lewis standards – did a good, profitable trade. In recent years though, as more and more customers have chosen online shopping, it began to suffer.

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Most of us still probably associate the thought of a retailer closing a shop as being a very clear indicator that the retailer itself is “in trouble”. Increasingly that’s not necessarily the case and very often, it’s primarily a response to the fact that a significant proportion of that shop’s custom has simply switched to the retailer’s website.

Mr Murphy says the retailer's online offer 'has become too effective at serving customers'. Picture: Mark Mackenzie.

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Our recent – unthinkable – lockdown reality has driven an acceleration in this shift to online shopping; new trends in customer behaviour, which we previously forecast would take a decade to develop under normal circumstances, materialised in just one year.

Critically, our judgement is that we believe this largely Covid-enforced shift will not materially reverse once our high streets are open again. After a vast amount of research, analysis and modelling, we have reluctantly concluded that for some of our shops, primarily those located in our less densely populated areas, there isn’t a viable future.

Our online offer has become too effective at serving customers, especially those who live in more rural areas, who now shop much more frequently with us online than they do in store.

Despite the skill and determination of our partners and our own desire to find an alternative to closing, we’ve been forced to accept that there are eight John Lewis stores whose profit we won’t be able to substantially improve. We must therefore propose closing sites including Aberdeen, Sheffield and York.

As the UK’s largest employee-owned company, everyone who works with us is a partner in the business. As such, we’re a tight-knit community, and we never make decisions that may lead to store closures or job losses without exhausting all viable alternatives. We feel the pain of potential partner redundancies very acutely.

In this last year, however, we’ve faced the most challenging circumstances our business has encountered since the Second World War – coincidentally around the time we opened our first branch in Scotland (on Frederick Street, in Edinburgh). For the first time in our 156-year history, John Lewis made a loss in 2020. While our response to that has painful consequences it is, unfortunately, a necessary one.

Without taking this action, we would carry forward significant doubt in our overall ability to offer employment to future generations of thousands of partners and service to millions of customers. The actions we are proposing now, alongside our investments in the future, will help to enable us to maintain our service to Scotland, through our flagship shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as our customer contact centre in Hamilton.

With a heavy heart, we have proposed closing the doors to the Aberdeen store, and we understand that for many of our loyal Aberdonian customers, the potential loss of the shop is a heavy one. Should the proposals go ahead, we’re hopeful you’ll join the thousands of others who already shop with us online.

We’re investing in more convenient access to John Lewis; improving our next-day Click & Collect service and offering more local collection points through third parties – including existing and new ones across Aberdeen and the Grampian area. John Lewis home delivery is also available to customers in every part of Scotland, offering next-day service amongst a range of options.

Challenging

For a business like ours, whose reason for existence is centred on furthering the benefits of employment and service to the community, closing shops is counter-cultural and an incredibly difficult step to propose. We understand that nothing can adequately replace what our shops give to the people who work there or the communities they serve.

However, we feel a deep commitment to both, which is why if the proposals go ahead, we will provide a £1 million Community Investment Fund, to be shared amongst the areas impacted by our shop closure proposals, to support local projects in the area. We would also offer a £3,000 vocational retraining grant to any partner who does not secure redeployment in the partnership.

Similarly, when thinking about our impact on Aberdeen we’re conscious that our building, on George Street, is a hugely important part of the city centre. In any future scenario we would work with the city to ensure that the building continues to play a productive role in the civic life of Aberdeen.

The proposal is in no way a reflection of the exceptional work of our partners in Aberdeen. I could not be prouder of their commitment and dedication and to have spent so many happy years as one of their number.

I want to thank every one of them – past and present – for sharing with each other and our customers the qualities and talents that they brought to work every day. Our focus now is on supporting them through the weeks ahead. Should redundancies be confirmed, we will make every effort to find them new roles in the partnership, and we have put together a package of support for them.

Andrew Murphy, partner and executive director of operations, John Lewis Partnership

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