Abigail Townsend: Never knowingly under-reformed: a retailer's revival

John Lewis and M&S reap the rewards of reinventing themselves
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The Independent Online

Another week, another mixed bag from the high street. Bit of good news, bit of bad, lots of debate about the weather - you know the routine.

One company that stood out was John Lewis. The department store chain and owner of Waitrose reported a 25 per cent jump in interim profits, while group sales climbed 11 per cent to £3bn. Not bad in a year when rivals produced disappointing results.

Now, the biggest stories on the high street of late have consistently been about turn- arounds, as some of the UK's biggest names strive to return to former glories: Marks & Spencer, J Sainsbury, Boots. In its own way, John Lewis has been having a quiet turnaround as well.

Over the past few years it has ;overhauled itself and, most importantly, the stuff it sells. No longer is it just a stomping ground for Surrey ladies looking for chintz. While managing not to alienate these shoppers altogether, John Lewis has done away with old-fashioned opening hours, smartened up stores and introduced ranges and products that appeal to younger, and discerning, shoppers.

I admit a bias here - half my house is clad out in John Lewis. I visited its store on Oxford Street recently and was amazed at how many things I wanted. Remarking on this to a John Lewis executive, he looked rather pleased and said that was the plan - to get a new generation of shoppers through the doors.

But if you really want proof of how well John Lewis's "turnaround" has gone, then look no further than M&S. This is another company that has, ever since Stuart Rose fought off Philip Green's hostile approaches two years ago, come on in leaps and bounds. Mr Rose has been rightly applauded for what he has done. Sales and profits are up, the stores sell stuff you might actually want to buy, and the stock is soaring.

And, incidentally, it is looking more and more like John Lewis. Earlier this month, a catalogue for M&S's new-technology offering landed on my desk and for a split-second I thought it was a John Lewis catalogue. I do not pretend to know what thoughts go through Mr Rose's brain, but I would not be surprised if he looked at John Lewis and decided he fancied a bit of that magic - keeping both old and new customers happy, taking a more ethical approach, stocking a great range, and seeing profits and sales surge as a result.

It's a cliché but both M&S and John Lewis are sticking to the best strategy any retailer can adopt: giving the customer exactly what they want.

Net gains for big names

The internet was another big focus of last week's updates. There has been much doom and gloom recently about how the internet will kill off everything, leaving tumbleweeds blowing through shopping centres and towns as we all stay at home to surf the web. The news that Tesco was launching its own online homeware arm seemed to be the last straw.

This is, of course, all nonsense. The end was nigh five years ago for the traditional retailer, remember - before all those half-baked dot coms fell from grace.

The internet as a shopping channel is here to stay and will only grow in popularity. I certainly pity the CD and booksellers in that respect. But for other retailers - the sort beloved of shoppers who will always want to nose around the high street on a Saturday afternoon - a great internet line only adds to your business. Look at Next. Expected to announce poor results, it instead revealed that the web had come to its rescue, contributing to a 3.6 per cent rise in profits. Likewise John Lewis. John Lewis Direct is now only second in sales to its Oxford Street flagship (admittedly losses at Ocado do keep coming; for the moment though, that can be put down to start-up costs).

So get it right, and while the internet will change shopping habits, it might also help ensure the survival of our retailers - and the high streets they inhabit.

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

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