The John Lewis ‘nightmare’ is a dream for many of us: Britons still love the department store chain… no matter what Boris’s consort might say
There are slurs, and then there’s the ignominy suffered by one of Britain’s most popular department stores following Carrie Symonds’s arrival in Downing Street and a guest’s description of the decor as a ‘John Lewis nightmare’.
The shame of it. But not for long. Consumers rallied because this was an attack on the spiritual home of Middle England; a mugging of sensible tastes and aspirations, an insult to vast swathes of the population for whom walking into a John Lewis store is like sinking into a hot bath on a cold night.
Where has the Duchess of Cambridge been known to go for the odd spot of shopping?
Fresh: John Lewis’s Modern Mediterranean range. British consumers have rallied around the much loved department store chain following remarks from Boris Johnson’s girlfriend
To Peter Jones, of course, the John Lewis outpost on the King’s Road in Chelsea, an elegant but soothing emporium which its clientele call ‘PJ’s.’
So loved is the John Lewis brand that after news broke last month that the 170-year-old Sheffield store would close, fans began pinning heart-shaped love letters to its windows.
And not for nothing did the late Poet Laureate John Betjeman say that when the end of the world came he wanted to be in the haberdashery department of Peter Jones ‘because nothing unpleasant could ever happen there’.
John Lewis is like a family member you moan about. Fine to do so but you don’t much like it if somebody else is criticising him or her.
What’s more, let’s not forget that the John Lewis Partnership is the largest employee-owned business in the UK.
Success from 1864 to 2021
John Spedan Lewis introduced the ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ slogan in 1925
John Lewis, the founder of the chain, was just 28 when he opened the first store in Oxford Street in 1864. Haberdashery and textiles for homes and clothing were the foundation of the business.
Lewis offered better value than competitors, making a profit of 25 per cent on the wholesale price of goods; the norm was 33 per cent.
Lewis who was described as ‘irascible, but highly principled’ was an adept deal-maker.
When the Peter Jones store in Chelsea began to fail in 1905, he walked into the shop and handed over a wad of cash to buy it on the spot from the owners.
His son John Spedan Lewis – who introduced the ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ slogan in 1925 – believed that more democratic practices would boost sales and employee welfare.
The first bonuses to staff were paid in 1920.
John Spedan Lewis established the Partnership in 1929, signing away his family’s ownership rights. Waitrose, a grocery business set up in 1904, was bought by John Lewis in 1937. It has a 5 per cent share of UK supermarket sales.
John Lewis began to sell furniture in 1918. In the 1950s, the company worked with emerging designers such as Robin and Lucienne Day, one of whose designs, a steel and plywood dining chair, is still on sale today (£340).
The online division john lewis.com was established in 2001. Online now accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of turnover.
John Spedan Lewis was an early believer in the promotion of women to key roles in the workplace.
Today Pippa Wicks is executive director and Sharon White is chairman.
Earlier this year, Sharon White said: ‘We are going through the greatest scale of change in the partnership’s 156-year history.’
The 78,000 staff are partners and co-owners who have a say in how the company is run and are entitled to a share in profits, although this cherished bonus was scrapped for this year.
John Lewis — which has been around for 156 years — has been navigating choppy waters long before any attempts at capsizing this once-trusty vessel.
During the pandemic, the company has cut its number of shops from 51 to 34, leaving the inhabitants of cities such as Aberdeen, Peterborough and York, as well as Sheffield, to mourn the passing of this retail stalwart.
The Never Knowingly Undersold pledge is ‘under review’, but no more store closures are planned for the time being.
Instead, it has launched its new Anyday brand, a range of 2,400 home, technology and baby pieces, created by the company’s own designers and costing 20 per cent to 40 per cent less than its other collections.
The aim is to win back the faithful (but Carrie presumably is a lost cause) who have strayed to such homeware and furniture rivals as Dunelm, a £2.9 billion company set up in 1979 and Wayfair, a giant American online operation now fast expanding in the UK, thanks to its tech expertise.
As part of its recovery plan, John Lewis says that it will be turning some of the unwanted space in Oxford Street and other stores into housing.
This will be an opportunity to live above the shop.
For some John Lewis lovers, this arrangement would not be too close for comfort, but prove to be their ideal home.
Household items to suit every budget
The Anyday Sweep three-seater sofa (in two colours only: blue and grey) is elegant and uncluttered and just £499.
The Booth two-seater sofa in opal dark teal, £899, (pictured) or from £1,499 if you want leather
The Booth three-seater has the same clean lines and costs from £999 for fabric upholstery (in a choice of 168 fabrics, Booth two-seater in opal dark teal, £899, pictured) or from £1,499 if you want leather.
The Platform 5 corner sofa (with side table) is the spacious, stylish seating of which you dream when living in a tiny flat. It costs from £3,799.
The pleasingly informal Anyday Anton oak table seats six on two benches and costs just £399. It’s Scandi cool for less.
Scandi cool: The pleasingly informal Anyday Anton oak table seats six on two benches and costs just £399
The Gallery Direct Madrid in walnut also seats six (£799).
Its curved, mid-century style makes you want to give a dinner party and ask friends to dress up (no trackpants, or hoodies, thank you).
The Matthew Hilton extending table for Case Cross (£2,645) can accommodate as many as 14 people, but it’s unobtrusively smart rather than imposingly grand. Just the thing for brunch, or Christmas dinner.
Bedding for all
John Lewis inspires a sense of calm. This is either boring or reassuring, depending on your view, but also why its bedding tends to be associated with a better night’s sleep.
Brighter bedding: Mustard cushion £5
Apart from cushions such as this mustard one (£5), you can choose between the Anyday hollowfill duvet (£10 to £18), the duck feather and down duvet (£40 to £75) — or invest in peaceful slumber by ordering a dual- tog Bavarian goosedown duvet, made by Herbert Parkinson.
This is John Lewis’s very own bedding maker, based in Darwen, Lancashire. Prices range from £600 to £760, for a king-size, super-king or emperor.
Is this Downing Street-type extravagance? Not if you consider that the cost starts at around £1.60 a night over a year, which is the sort of sum that John Lewis, the company’s founder, used to sell his luxury wares more than 150 years ago.