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Is this the beginning of the end for Dame Sharon White at John Lewis?

Marcus Jaye
22 March 2023

Running the John Lewis Partnership – owner of the John Lewis and Waitrose brands – like the civil service worked well for a large chunk of the 20th century. Slow and steady as she goes.

When Dame Sharon White was appointed chairman, in February 2020, the feeling was more of the same with her background in the government as Chief Executive of Ofcom (the regulator for the British communications industry). A safe pair of hands.

In her defence, early 2020 wasn’t exactly a great time to start in retail for anybody. The next two years was about survival and overcoming pandemic restrictions not strategy and positioning the company for the future.

Nevertheless, White has no previous experience in retail and it’s starting to show. The Sunday Times story with regards to John Lewis selling off a large chunk of the company and go against everything it stands for is a non-story. It’s a non-starter and it’s not going to happen. Partners – the owner/employees of the John Lewis Partnership – voting for it would be like civil servants voting against government. With no financial incentive either, it won’t get the two thirds of the partnership council in favour to carry. The trust also needs an Act of Parliament to change it.

Dame Sharon White

But, whomever placed this story knew it would rock the boat and signals the beginning of the end of White. Three years into her leadership and the lack of vision is starting to show.

The big problem it has now is, it is the retail punchbag. The media has planted an "it’s not as good as it used to be" seed into the public’s head and it took the last punchbag, Marks & Spencer, over two decades to shake off.  Stories like this just continue the negativity which erodes morale and needs strong and experience leadership to overcome.

In October 2020, the partnership unveiled its five-year plan. The talk was, by 2030, John Lewis said it will make 40% of its profits outside retail – building rental flats above shops and expanding financial products. The department store chain also said it wanted to become a 60% to 70% online business.

It completely forgot about the shops. Not once did White stand up and say "we love our shops" or "we are our shops" or "our shops are the best". They were almost instantly discarded to the history bin and looked at more of a hindrance than integral part of the business. The recent bounce back in physical retail has highlighted this mistake even more.

Let’s look at this rental flat idea. It’s a good idea, but it should not be the main business focus. It’s too long term, is in partnership with Abrdn, and will take years to get through the British planning and building stages to bear fruit. The first plans in Ealing above a Waitrose store, only built in 2005, has already brought objections. A campaign group ‘Stop The Towers’ is against three blocks of apartments up to 19 storeys high. No doubt it will be scaled down and therefore shrink the future rental income The site is scheduled to be ready to move into in 2027. Anything can happen between now and then. Two other proposed sites are in Bromley and Reading.

Reducing the prices in Waitrose won’t get Aldi or Lidl shoppers through the door. They should embrace what they are and own the best food on the high-street. They will be one of the only supermarkets with manned food counters soon. They don’t celebrate this: people, people, people, partners, partners, partners.

The cheaper ANYDAY range, or “Any Old Shit” as the staff have been calling it, isn’t for the true John Lewis customer. It’s starting to look like they don’t even know who the customer is.

John Lewis staff were told not to shop online if they could help it over the Christmas period because it costs the business more to fulfil, yet at the same time, many of the offers, such as 3 for 2 on Christmas decorations, were only available online. Why? It should be channelling the sales to shops and getting people into its cafés and restaurants or buying things they never knew existed. Footfall was was up 34% year on year it said this month.

While M&S has gone all neon signs and retail theatre in its food halls, when Waitrose refurbishes a store it is often indistinguishable from before. That was part of the familiarity/charm, but there is a way of updating while remaining true to the brands’ looks.

One of M&S’s recent strengths was shaking off the shackles of its historical retail estate. It realised that its old store portfolio, even if they did own the freeholds, were in the wrong places and pushed big into large out-of-town stores. John Lewis closed most of theirs.

Waitrose has parted ways with the experimental chef Heston Blumenthal, staff perks like free entry to museums have been cut and there was no staff bonus for the second time in three years. It will find it hard to hold onto good staff and attract high profile executives. Pippa Wicks, the former executive director of John Lewis, who was one of the first high-profile appointments by White recently departed. While she came to John Lewis from the Co-op, Wicks' background was in managing consulting. Like White, Wicks too faced criticism for not being a true retailer at heart.

And this lack of retail expertise has been compounded by the appointment of the first ever John Lewis CEO. Nish Kankiwala is a hugely able executive, having held high profile roles at Burger King, Pepsico and Hovis, but is more known as a turnaround expert than a retail expert (though the former knowledge will no doubt be handy).

On the plus side, John Lewis has saved a lot recently on efficiencies. But inflation and energy costs have hammered it and some of the decisions it has made seem questionable. It is moving out of its Victoria head office for instance, while at the same time reducing the floors in John Lewis Oxford Street and turning them into offices. It doesn’t take a genius to put the two together, but John Lewis HQ will not be moving into those offices itself the company still says it is looking for new offices and to be announced in the near future.

There is nothing wrong with the partnership model. It was designed for a long-term vision and not short-term shareholder demands. But, it needs to remember it is a retailer and needs a retailer to lead it.

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