As Stratford City opens, I check out John Lewis’s answers to the lack of other new schemes
As the vast Westfield Stratford City opens its doors today, it’s little wonder that most of Twitter’s retail commentators seem to have decamped to east London. With 300 stores (though not yet all open) and a floor area of 1.9m sq ft (177,000 sqm), the opening of “Europe’s largest urban shopping centre” would be a noteworthy occasion at any time.
As it is, the mall is the only major shopping centre to open in the UK this year. While most major new retail developments, such as Trinity Leeds or Sheffield’s Sevenstone, have been delayed as a result of the economic downturn, Westfield Stratford City has been driven by its unique status as the gateway to London’s Olympic Park.
For John Lewis, whose 260,000 sq ft store (with 155,000 sq ft of selling space) anchors Westfield Stratford City, this stalling of new shopping centre developments has put something of a brake on its plans for new full-line department stores. Stratford City is the first one to open since Cardiff’s two years ago, while there’s unlikely to be another one before Birmingham opens in 2014. New stores that should have been opening this year – such as those in Sheffield and Portsmouth – are still several years off, assuming they happen at all.
John Lewis’s response to the development hold-ups has been to introduce new, smaller formats that will work in a wider range of locations – such as the ‘At Home’ concept that I blogged about previously – as well as continuing to invest in upgrading its existing store estate. While in the Midlands and South over the last few weeks, I was able to take a look at some of what John Lewis is up to.
Down in Berkshire, John Lewis Reading is one of the chain’s longest established stores, and is currently benefiting from a £19m makeover. Occupying a prime spot in Broad Street, the town’s main shopping thoroughfare, the store was extended in 1985 but traces its origins, as Heelas, back to 1855. The John Lewis Partnership acquired the shop in 1953, though the John Lewis fascia was only adopted in 2001.
When I visited last month, work on the second phase of the comprehensive two-stage revamp was well underway. New features of the store include a recently opened new-concept technology department, where modern interior finishes and computers on long tables create a more hands-on, Apple Store-style experience than has usually been the case at John Lewis.
Forty miles or so down the M4, the £7m John Lewis at Home in Swindon represents a relatively quick and cheap way for the retailer to circumvent development delays, and to plug the gap in coverage between its existing department stores in Reading and Bristol.
At first glance, the store’s location on the slightly dowdy Mannington Retail Park – close to an existing Carpetright, Allied Carpets and a closed-down Matalan Clearance shop – doesn’t seem especially promising, and the smaller lettable units (currently empty) that form part of the new John Lewis block bring to mind the never-occupied stores adjoining Gateshead’s ill-fated M&S Lifestore/ILVA.
Fortunately, if the busyness of the store last Sunday afternoon is anything to go by, Swindon’s John Lewis should enjoy a much more positive future. At 39,000 sq ft of selling space, the store is barely a quarter of the size of the Stratford City shop, but its range of furniture, homewares, electricals and technology, spread over two floors, seemed to compare favourably with that offered by my local JL department store in Newcastle. Prominent terminals allow customers to browse and order from the wider John Lewis range, including categories like fashion, beauty and nursery that are missing from the ‘at Home’ format.
The store itself is bright and easy to navigate, and the John Lewis Partners that I encountered were friendly and keen to engage – a positive sign as the company continues to expand so rapidly. In fact, the only slight disappointment was the rather small café, which feels more like a Waitrose instore coffee shop than the more extensive restaurant offer normally found in John Lewis department stores.
Café quibble aside, this all bodes well for the sixth John Lewis at Home store, on Tamworth’s Ventura Retail Park, which is due to open on 12 October (following the fifth, in Chester, on 28 September). Still only a steel frame when I was there in June, the store had gained its cladding, glazing and signage by the time I returned ten days ago.
Though similar in size to the Swindon store, the Tamworth shop’s location – on the UK’s tenth biggest retail park by expenditure (according to CACI Retail Footprint data), and the town’s main access road to the A5 – is much better. Where Swindon’s John Lewis needs to work as a destination in its own right – which it seems to be doing – the Tamworth store dominates the view from all over the retail park, and is likely to benefit from much more passing trade as shoppers head to the nearby Sainsbury’s, Asda, M&S or multitude of other big-name stores.
Finally, one site that was supposed to house a John Lewis at Home store – but now isn’t, quite – is the former home of Debenhams in Exeter’s Sidwell Street.
Nearly a year ago, John Lewis announced plans to invest £8.5m in its first town centre ‘at Home’ store, bringing back into use the landmark 1960s tower block that Debenhams vacated, in 2007, upon the opening of its new store at the nearby Princesshay development.
Instead, the company announced in July that the Exeter shop would be the first of a new ‘flexible department store concept’, occuping between 65,000 and 100,000 sq ft – larger than at ‘at Home’ store, but not as big as a traditional John Lewis department store. The range, however, will cover all John Lewis’s categories, offering “an edited collection of products across fashion, home and electronics, in an inspiring and contemporary setting”, complemented by the chain’s online operation and the ability to order items not held instore.
The Exeter store has a planned opening date of autumn 2012, and work appeared to be well advanced when I visited last week. A major part of the scheme involves raising the single-storey entrance pavilion to the height of the adjoining four-storey slab, creating a prominent glazed frontage to the corner of Sidwell Street and Paris Street.
The existing building, it has to be said, is not Exeter’s prettiest, but there’s no disputing the way it dominates the city’s skyline and the view along the main High Street. Fortunately, 3D renders of the enlarged store show a more comprehensive revamp of the building’s exterior than had previously been planned.
I’m not clear how Debenhams feels about a major competitor opening up in its former premises, particularly as both Princesshay and the John Lewis site are owned by Land Securities. The argument, however, would be that John Lewis’s arrival will provide a significant boost to retail in Exeter as a whole, drawing in shoppers who would previously have had to travel to the JL store at Bristol’s Cribbs Causeway.
CACI currently ranks Plymouth (at #26 in the UK, with annual expenditure of £760m) as the South West’s second biggest retail centre after Bristol, just ahead of Exeter (at #30 with £710m), but I’d be surprised if the benefits from John Lewis don’t lift Exeter above its Devon rival.
With John Lewis having “identified at least ten locations across the UK which could support these bespoke department stores”, and further expansion planned for the ‘at Home’ format, new John Lewis stores look likely to pop up all over the country in the next few years – helping the chain to reach more of those customers who, it believes, would like to be able to access a John Lewis shop.
The challenge, however, will be ensuring that rapid expansion doesn’t compromise the high standards of training and customer service for which John Lewis is rightly renowned; and that increasing ubiquity doesn’t undermine the very cachet that has made John Lewis so popular for so long.