Store of old virtues battles to keep trade

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JOHN LEWIS, the favourite retailer of the suburban middle classes, is going through a rocky patch. Its full-year profits are down 17 per cent, and its chairman, Sir Stuart Hampson, has warned of a "sticky few months ahead".

Its stores have made little concession to the changing trends of modern retailing. In its flagship Oxford Street store, for example, the floors and walls are still beige and the displays understated, in contrast to those in funkier chain shops across the road. The haberdashery section looks delightfully archaic - belonging in an old colonial capital rather than the centre of London's busiest shopping street.

And this is what is hobbling the company in the battle for shoppers. "My son refuses to come here, whatever I say," said David Holmes, a regular customer at the Oxford Street shop. "He is 30 now, but he still says it's `uncool'."

Sir Stuart agreed yesterday that the store's image ("of the place where your parents dragged you when you were a child") was unlikely to endear it to twentysomethings. But he insisted the downturn was merely part of a general trend. "I see huge problems ahead but not insurmountable ones. Like anyone else, we will have to adapt," he said.

The John Lewis approach has its die-hard fans. Vicky Binendon, a mother of four from North London who has been a John Lewis regular for 25 years, said: "It's marvellous - it always has been. And this is the only shop where they know what they are doing."

It seems the firm's old-fashioned values are what draw the customers. Mary Woodford, shopping for a tablecloth, said:"Somehow they manage to keep the prices so reasonable but the assistants are not just young people on a training scheme who don't care," she said. In fact, the company's staff is dominated by full-time, long-term employees - all the better for customer service, but a costly and inflexible practice that requires many of the chain's 23 shops to be closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Reliability, dependability and value have always been the stores' watchwords. But these values are also of an old, less ruthless world.