Interview: Isabel Macdonald, Branch Manager, John Lewis at Home Tamworth
Tamworth’s new John Lewis at Home opened its doors on Wednesday (12 October), eight months after I broke the news of its impending arrival.
The 42,000 sq ft shop at the edge-of-town Ventura Park is John Lewis’s sixth in the ‘at Home’ format, following the opening of stores in Poole, Croydon, Swindon (which I recently visited), Tunbridge Wells and Chester. Further John Lewis at Home shops are set to open in Ashford, Newbury and Chichester during 2012, while the retailer’s new Exeter store – originally announced as an ‘at Home’ shop – will, as I recently noted, be the first of a new ‘flexible’ department store format.
While the ‘at Home’ stores focus on furniture, homewares, furnishing accessories, electricals and home technology, John Lewis’s strength as a multichannel retailer – highlighted in my recent Bdaily column – means that the full John Lewis range is available to Tamworth shoppers via ‘Click and Collect’. Products can be ordered online or instore by 7pm, and picked up from the store after 2pm the next day.
In a recent tweet, I suggested that John Lewis’s arrival in Tamworth was the biggest single retail event to happen in the town for decades – probably since the opening of the Ankerside shopping centre, in 1980, transformed the town centre’s retail landscape. The fact that there is now a store called ‘John Lewis Tamworth’ is remarkable enough in itself, but the 218 jobs that have been created by the £7m store – 200 of which are brand-new John Lewis Partners – also make it one of the biggest single retail investments that Tamworth has ever seen.
One of the Partners to have transferred from elsewhere is the new branch manager, Isabel Macdonald, whose career with the company goes back nine years – including seven years in the Reading store before her most recent stint as operations manager at Solihull. Hours after the store’s opening, Isabel took a few moments out to chat to me about getting the store ready for launch; the excitement of the opening morning; how John Lewis is seeking to establish itself as part of the Tamworth community; and how it is a “dream come true” to be branch manager of a store just twenty miles from where she was born and grew up.
John Lewis Tamworth’s transformation from a steel frame when I first visited in June to a fully-clad building in September and an operational store now is pretty impressive, and the efficiency of the process to train new Partners and stock the store is no less remarkable.
Isabel told me that her own work at Tamworth started seven weeks before opening, working with her team to ensure that the store had the “best-trained” Partners who would “give customers the service they would expect from John Lewis.” Meanwhile, she revealed that the process of filling the store with £3m of stock had taken just nine days to complete.
Three hours after the store opened at 9am, Isabel reported that cars had been “flooding in” to the 311-space car park, and that there had been 100 customers waiting in the queue for the doors to open – including one keen gentleman who had arrived at 6am. Early customer comments had been “lovely”, and the 80-seater instore café was also gaining positive feedback.
Given Ventura Park’s reputation for traffic chaos, I was bound to ask Isabel for her view on how the roads had coped in those first few hours. While it was obviously early days, she suggested that the recent improvements to the road layout and traffic control – initiated as a direct result of John Lewis’s arrival and the nearby B&Q-anchored Cardinal Point development – seemed to be working. Clearly it will be something to keep an eye on, however; as Isabel noted, “We are keen to work with retailers and the council to make sure that Ventura Park is the most convenient place to shop for customers in the West Midlands.”
A month ago, Retail Week reported that John Lewis was planning “tweaks” to the ‘at Home’ format in response to a performance that was “a little bit below what we expected”, and I raised this with Isabel.
While Retail Week suggested that John Lewis at Home stores will start to stock some lower-priced items – such as pictures, mirrors and rugs – Isabel was clear that the retailer’s longstanding ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ promise stands it in good stead: “What customers are saying is that they want to know they are getting value from John Lewis – that’s not necessarily being ‘cheap’, but offering value in terms of quality, price and service.” She gave the example of how the Tamworth store is offering a new, fully bespoke furnishing fabric service, where curtains can be ordered in custom sizes.
Not long after news emerged of Tamworth being the first John Lewis at Home in the Midlands, the Partnership announced, back in February, that a new full-line, 250,000 sq ft department store would open in Birmingham in 2014 – just 20 miles or 30 minutes’ drive away. With John Lewis already present in Solihull, Leicester and Nottingham, is this not a lot of stores in a relatively small area?
Seemingly not. Citing John Lewis’s investment in both online and shops, Isabel was clear that “the Tamworth and Birmingham shops have distinct catchments, and there is enough room for both to trade successfully”. While the Birmingham store is about having a presence in a major city centre, Tamworth – and the ‘at Home’ format generally – is “all about convenience”. The transport connections to Ventura Park seem to have been a big factor in choosing that location, with Isabel noting that the new Tamworth store will also serve towns such as Lichfield and Sutton Coldfield that have previously been outside a John Lewis catchment.
Town centre impact
The latest CACI Retail Footprint map flagged Ventura Park as the UK’s tenth biggest retail park by expenditure; the arrival of John Lewis, with a new B&Q, Maplin and Next to follow, will surely propel it up the rankings. So, what does all this mean for Tamworth town centre – a location that has already rather struggled to define itself as major retailers like WHSmith and New Look have decamped to the edge of town?
Isabel was clear that John Lewis aims to work alongside the local retail community and to help “make Tamworth the best possible destination”. She observed that data following previous ‘at Home’ openings has demonstrated a “John Lewis effect for the whole area”, as shoppers take the opportunity to check out other attractions in those locations. The positive impact of the 200 new jobs will also filter through into the local economy, she argued, with many of the new Partners living in the Tamworth area.
Apart from the footfall and economic benefits, Isabel noted that her store is also working with three local charities – Tamworth Volunteer Centre, Rosie’s Helping Hands, and Bancroft Community Association – who took part in the opening-day ribbon-cutting ceremony and will each benefit from a donation from the retailer’s Community Matters scheme.
For all Tamworth town centre’s flaws – most notably its underwhelming market and lack of upmarket stores – there is, as I’ve observed before, much for visitors to enjoy. Visitors recently flocked to the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition at Tamworth Castle; the UltraSound Music Festival attracted a younger crowd to enjoy artists such as Tinie Tempah and The Wanted; and the town’s colourful floral displays this summer were, as always, among the best anywhere. The town centre also has some interesting and distinctive shops – notably the Irish fashion retaiiler, Dunnes; the independent Tamworth Co-op department store; and plenty of appealing independents.
John Lewis at Home is different to many of the other tenants at Ventura Park in that there was never any question of it being able to, or wanting to, open in Tamworth town centre. Ultimately, I would argue, it’s a format that works best on a retail park, and that was attracted to Tamworth specifically because of Ventura Park’s popularity and location.
However, if Isabel is right, and even a small proportion of John Lewis’s visitors check out what the town centre has to offer, the arrival in Tamworth of one of retail’s biggest names may indeed be cause for wider optimism about the town centre’s future.