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‘You’ll come out feeling better’: Buyer on change at John Lewis

Photograph: Gary Calton / The Observer

When John Lewis announced it would not be reopening its Sheffield store following the pandemic, Margaret Dakin was devastated. “The shock was literally like being hit,” she says.

Dakin, 62, marks life’s big opportunities at the city’s John Lewis store. “I bought every important item from that store: material for my wedding dress, clothes for grand occasions … my oven,” she says of the department store known until 2002 as Cole Brothers. “When I bought my first house in the 1980s as a skintight local government official, I had saved enough money to buy my living room carpet.”

It was also where, as a youth worker, she bought herself treats: “a lipstick, some nice tights, shoes in a sale”.

The retired housing manager says that as well as offering high quality goods and service, the store provided a social element. “It was a nice building – it always had somewhere to meet friends, or if you got a little fed up, you could spend a couple of hours in there and feel a little better.”

“You know the staff. I’d go and buy shoes and the guy knew what I liked — it was the same with the guys in the furniture department. Online shopping isn’t the same; I like to touch what I’m buying.” .

In Dakin’s view, “the center of Sheffield imploded” by losing the department store. Her mother-in-law, who is 85, used to go there once a week; She hasn’t been to the city center since the store closed. “He became increasingly isolated,” she says. “That was his treat—it makes you feel like you’re still in society.”

The company’s Sheffield department store is one of a number of stores that closed during the pandemic. And it could be the end of an era, after reports indicated the loss-making firm could scale down its 100% employee-owned model after 70 years.

A Victorian-era carving of Cole Brothers as the Sheffield department store was known until 2002. Photograph: Mick Flynn/Image

Sharon White, who runs department stores and Waitrose as chair of the John Lewis Partnership, has warned of job losses and the abolition of bonuses, saying: “Inflation hit us like a hurricane.”

For some families, questions about the future of the company loom large. Simon Clawson, 48, grew up as a “John Lewis kid”: his father worked for the company, on and off, for four decades until he was 75, in roles including service porter, security and receptionist. Clausen, a teacher in Milton Keynes, recalls, “The social secretary arranged several weeks of trips to theme parks, theatres, airshows and even as children.”

“There was an annual gala for all the branches – it was like a big fancy dress party and there would be rides and games. It was part of the ethos of the company. He met his lifelong best friend through the firm – a fellow John Lewis child Also met.

Employee discounts and bonuses allowed the family to get their first home computer “and many other life-changing things we would have struggled with otherwise,” he says. “I love that version of John Lewis. I was proud that my dad worked there. We were really taken care of.

Clausen, 48, says his father was “a little heartbroken” to hear that the firm might be changing its ownership model. Clausen says he didn’t believe it at first. His father said it was almost something that would require “an Act of Parliament” to change. Clausen says that weakening the model would be “the beginning of the end”.

For musician Jenny, 68, watering down the ownership model would be a “dealbreaker.”

“If John Lewis drops its policy of employees owning shares, I will no longer shop there. I could tolerate their higher prices more easily, knowing that the profits go to the employees. But if that If he leaves, I will also leave.

Genie has bought less from John Lewis in recent years, and cited the end of a “never knowingly undersold” policy, which was retired in August 2022. principle,” she says. “Earlier it was something I could trust. What didn’t you have to do your research on? Going to John Lewis was a no brainer.

But her memories of visiting the London and Watford stores as a child are clear in her mind, to the sound of shoppers’ shoes on the linoleum and the smell of the “phenomenal” clothing department. “Mother made us clothes that I didn’t like to wear, and also curtains.

“It was always quite exciting to go in there and see all the prints. The school uniforms, the shoes, our household items. The machines. The clothes. All of that came from John Lewis.


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