REAL LIVES: The perfect partnership

John Lewis: model department store or a set for The Stepford Wives? Hester Lacey goes behind the scenes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
a day behind the scenes in the flagship John Lewis store in Oxford Street is initially a weird and unnerving experience. It's rather like wandering on to the set of The Stepford Wives; an uncanny aura of politeness, cheer and bonhomie hangs over the place. "Good morning, Mrs X," people trill to each other when they pass on the escalators. "How are things in Lighting (or Silverware, or Dress Fabrics)?" "Excellent - and how is Art Needlework (or Coats, or Lingerie)?" comes the smiling reply. At first a visitor cannot help suspecting that the longest-serving, happiest, most relentlessly cheerful members of staff are somehow being deliberately planted in their path.

The secret of all this enthusiasm is the company structure. The John Lewis Partnership is a co-operative. As soon as anyone becomes a permanent member of staff, he or she is also a partner in the business, sharing in profits and enjoying a standard of staff care that seems extraordinary in an age when most companies are cutting back ruthlessly on such fripperies. JL partners can take advantage of the JL holiday properties, sports and social clubs, subsidised canteen, care from the in-store doctor, physiotherapist and chiropodist. Being a partner is taken very seriously. JL people refer to "the partners at Peter Jones" or "the partners in Kingston".

The spectre of redundancy does not stalk the (faintly disinfectant-smelling) corridors. "Redundancy?" says the Personnel partner briskly. "Oh, never. We take people on when the market is up; when things are quieter, we just stop recruiting and let natural wastage sort things out."

John Lewis is not everyone's cup of tea as a job. There are strict rules partners must observe (the dress code is severe - suede shoes, for example, are forbidden as they cannot be polished) - but received wisdom is that if you work for John Lewis for five years, you're there for life. How do they do it? "We give them a little infusion of green blood," explains the staff training manager genially.

6am In the ghostly basement, the six o'clock chiming in the Clock Department is an eerie sound. An occasional cleaner glides between the silent racks. Down in the loading bay, however, they are wide awake. Eustace Andrews, goods handling section manager, rotund and smiling in his company-issue green windcheater, is expecting the first of a relay of 40ft articulated lorries that will ferry supplies back and forth all day from the John Lewis warehouses at Acton and Stevenage. Mr Andrews has grown impervious to cold and early starts during his 35 years as a partner. "I wouldn't have stayed all this time if I didn't like it." The lorries are running late; it's not until 6.45am that the first articulated slithers backwards into the narrow loading bay. Mr Andrews and his team have the back open before the lorry has stopped moving, and whip out its cargo of wire cages crammed with pedal bins and enormous teddy bears in precisely eight minutes. It takes another six minutes to reload with cages of discarded packaging; the lorry is in the bay for a bare quarter of an hour.

7am The contract cleaners have been hard at it for an hour. "Chewing- gum is a nightmare," says Paul Culligan, assistant service manager (Services), and a partner for 17 years. "I've got a man who spends two hours every day scraping it off the pavement." Tony Blackburn is blasting out over the sombre racks of school outfits on the fourth floor. "We did a straw poll of what the staff wanted to hear and they picked this," says Mr Culligan; he pauses under a high ceiling sign indicating the way to Toys - "Now, you wouldn't want to knock against this and get dust falling down on you," he says. Well, if I were an Olympic-standard high-jumper practising in-store, it might worry me. Mr Culligan hops up on to a nearby display plinth to run his finger along the top of the sign. It's quite clean. Further on, Charlie the cleaner is pushing his polisher along the walk- on. (Technical note: these are the uncarpeted bits of walkway.) Charlie is looking forward to his long leave. "When you have worked for 25 years, you get six months' paid leave. I'm going back to St Lucia," he says, smiling beatifically.

8am In Kitchenware, Vic Leonard, deputy manager, is tidying a display of Delia Smith books. "We have a regular promotion on the back of her TV programme. This week it's these anodised baking trays," he explains, banging one.

9am Anne Tolley, internal display manager, is up a stepladder on the ground floor. "Just by standing and looking at displays the customer should be able to get her bearings and work out where they are," she explains (the customer is always referred to as "she"). "We had the theme sorted out in June - Christmas is over for us now. We're already thinking about garden furniture."

9.30am A team of porters unlocks the doors and lets the shoppers in.

10am Some staff have phoned in sick, others are on their "leisure days". This is when Shirley Gilkes and her flying squad come into their own. Officially known as the Special Sales Team, her floating staff are moved from department to department, covering as needed. Shirley has 10 staff to juggle among 23 gaps. "Haberdashery are willing to loan someone till 4.30pm," says Lynne Green, her deputy. Lynne's husband Trevor is in Customer Services. This kind of family connection is not unusual. Vincent Masterson, another of the team, who does Saturdays while completing a degree in theology, has a Dad with 16 years experience in Radio and Television, and a Mum who's been nine years in Carpets.

11am Breakfast is still going strong in the Partners' Dining Room. A cooked breakfast is around 90p. Maria Leese is the partner in charge; eerily, for someone who looks about 20, she claims to have been a partner for seven years. In an average day, 3,500 to 4,000 people pass through her domain. Feedback comes via the Comments Book: "Didn't think much of the lentil bake. Why don't you try cooking the lentils for less time?" enquires one, rather irately. Maria shows off the roof garden. There is a little shed with stripey deckchairs, and a small greenhouse where the gardener is overwintering his pelargoniums. The enterprising Ms Leese patrols with sandwiches when the weather's warm. Back inside, she points out the restrooms - there are four: quiet smoking, noisy smoking, quiet non-smoking and noisy non-smoking. The noisy rooms are equipped with televisions and pool tables; the quiet ones are hushed as libraries.

12 noon From a vantage point in a second-floor gallery, Alan Savage, training manager, surveys the scene. "What about that woman looking at swimsuits - how would you approach her?" "Erm - perhaps I'd ask if she was looking for something special," comes a tentative suggestion from a trainee. "Good, at least you didn't suggest the dreaded 'Can I help you?' " He sighs as he spots a check-out partner failing to hand over a carrier bag in the prescribed manner (handles presented so the customer can grasp them, rather than handing over using the handles so the customer has to grab awkwardly, or - heinous crime - scrunching up the bag and pushing it over the counter).

1pm In her tiny office on the sixth floor, assistant editor Zoe Cull is peering at the latest edition of the Chronicle, the weekly in-house newsletter, 2p to partners. The Chronicle publishes trade results for each department. Teeth are gnashed if a department slips a notch. Staff are encouraged to write in with comments - anonymously if they prefer. The letters page can thus become rather heated, as correspondents like "Honest Injun" and "Captain Fourpack" lay into the debate.

2pm Congestion is eased in the Partners' Dining Room by staggering lunch- hours. In the Senior Dining Room on the fourth floor, the pace is altogether less hectic. On today's menu: quails' eggs, grilled haddock, a choice of veg.

3pm In the carpenters' shop, Declan Ahearne, a recent recruit, is about to head off to cut out new socket holes for a Sports display. He is one of a team of 15 carpenters and two French polishers on call for fixing and general maintenance. "Before, I was out on sites all the time. This is nice and warm," he says. Tony Butler, another of the team, is working on a new lectern. "People think things do themselves, but we're always busy." He is particularly proud that Christmas Stationery magically appeared over a single weekend.

4pm The Toy Department is suffering under a noisy assault of kids, parents in tow. "We exist for this time of year," says department manager Gordon Marshall, whose normal staff of five swells to a harassed 30. The general racket is cacophonous. The worst anti-social behaviour he can remember, Mr Marshall says, was the discovery of a soiled nappy in the Wendy House.

5pm Christmas Stationery is seething. "In your display there are little gold crackers and I can't find them," says a shopper accusingly. She is swept smilingly off to the crackers. Kitchenware is also hectic. "It's the biggest-selling department and we all get a kick out of it," says Mike Hudson, its manager, understating the case. "We can order anything, stock anything, and we match any price," he says, eyes gleaming. "We pay an insurance premium to extend any manufacturer's warranty to two years ... " and so on. This man is passionate about white goods. In the coffee shop on fourth, Anne Fenton's day began with a nasty plumbing leak. Now she is dealing with a personal crisis involving one of her youngest staff. In between, she has been helping her customers. "We get a lot of requests for mashed avocado for little babies - it's very much in vogue. We don't get asked for mashed banana any more - that's modern mothers, I suppose."

6pm Winding down. Partners tidy Christmas baubles into neat pyramids, pile goods into neat stacks, roll up fabrics. Tomorrow, in theory, the computer system will ensure that all goods sold today will miraculously reappear from stock. Gentle hints such as repeated Tannoy messages encourage the straggling shoppers out of the door. The evening cleaners will soon be starting. The Social Club will remain lively until chucking-out time at 10pm; and then the building will be left to the security guards until tomorrow.

8 'Modern Times: The Partners', 9 pm Wednesday 13 December, BBC2