John Lewis was always the bastion of the high street, but now it’s faltering

The mutually owned, middle-class home builder is crumbling, and local councils are finally beginning to realise that the high street is in a dire situation, writes Chris Blackhurst

Friday 26 March 2021 21:30 GMT
Bastion of the high street: the retail chain’s store in Kingston upon Thames
Bastion of the high street: the retail chain’s store in Kingston upon Thames (Getty)

Smack in the middle of Kingston upon Thames is a John Lewis.

It’s no exaggeration to say this is one enormous store. “The same footprint as St Paul’s Cathedral,” the publicity gushed when it opened in 1990. Each of the two floors of the underground car park is as big as an international football pitch, and “the third-floor roof void is equivalent to an Olympic-sized swimming pool”. It’s served by 18 lifts and 17 escalators.

You get the picture. Except you won’t, unless you’re familiar with this part of Greater London. The department store is not remotely beautiful and is out of step with the surroundings. How this ugly building got planning permission is baffling, but then again it isn’t, because this was the first John Lewis store to be built south of the river, and Kingston was desperate to be seen as a major “shopping destination”. It was heralded as a magnet for consumers and for other shops attracted by the increased footfall it would bring. This too was John Lewis. This was not any old rapacious operator; this was the oh so nice, mutually owned, middle-class homebuilder.

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So keen were Kingston council to persuade John Lewis to come that they even rerouted the town’s one-way system to accommodate them. The result was a vast, imposing structure straddling the main road to and from Kingston Bridge across the Thames.

So total was the brand’s hold and so thrilled were the town’s high-ups about their new arrival, that the annual nativity display in the local church was sponsored by John Lewis. Presumably, if the owner of the inn had been in Kingston rather than Bethlehem – and in the current era, not ancient times – they would have decked out the stable in coordinated sofas and throws, and Joseph and Mary would have been able to avail themselves of a giant red or cream-coloured fridge with ice maker and matching toaster.

Councils bending over backwards is not unique to Kingston. Up and down the land, there are town and cityscapes dominated by a John Lewis, not so much creating a footprint as planting a massive boot. Places everywhere have been lining up to welcome the chain. Having one of its outlets, often with a Waitrose attached, was seen as evidence of prestige, that a place belonged, and that its aspiration had been realised.

The trouble is that on too many shopping days, the Kingston branch really does resemble a cavernous church, empty of noise and people. That, as well, is a scene replicated elsewhere.

This could be the tipping point, the event that forces ministers to take seriously the devastation being wrought, and to finally boost the high street

Councils and business leaders, I read this week, are “shell-shocked” to find that their John Lewis will soon be no more. Eight stores were added to the lengthening list of outlets to close permanently. The reaction of those burghers is the same as the shoppers grabbed by a TV news reporter for a vox pop. When told that another store is going, they express surprise and dismay – then journey home and open their boxes from Amazon.

It really is bizarre, this sudden outpouring of shock. It’s as if John Lewis’s continued presence instilled a sense of denial, lulling folk – councils, town centre managers, citizens, and judging by their fury, seemingly other retailers – into believing everything was rosy on their high street or in their shopping mall. As long as the John Lewis functioned, apparently all was well. They paid no attention to the fact that footfall and accompanying spend were falling and had been for years. Presumably they did not give this stark evidence a second thought as they ordered their own online deliveries.

There have been several wake-up calls concerning the plight of traditional retailing: bankruptcies and disappearances of numerous chains; retailers making across-the-board cuts; Marks & Spencer pulling out from various locations; Arcadia and Debenhams being sold to buyers who wanted only the names and online platforms, and not the bricks-and-mortar sites. Seemingly, none of them equate to John Lewis signalling “enough”. There was even an indication from the firm as to what was coming and the precipitous rate of decline, when it announced the abandonment of its Birmingham Grand Central branch. Built over the city’s New Street station this store carried echoes of Kingston, as a prestige landmark. It’s shuttered, less than six years after opening.

Presumably now, the message will reach the government, from those MPs who are seeing their constituencies ravaged, if no one else. This could be the tipping point, the event that forces ministers to take seriously the devastation being wrought, and to finally boost the high street and push back against online. At Westminster, for the last few decades, John Lewis has been upheld as a good thing, the acceptable face of capitalism, an organisation that showed how employee ownership could work. It was the exemplar, cited time and again by admiring politicians from all sides.

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Suddenly, John Lewis, having to deal with demoralised shareholders and unable to go to the City to raise cash to fight its way out of trouble in the manner it would like, does not appear so smart. The most secure, well-managed, ever-so-courteous marque, the one that claims to be “never knowingly undersold”, that makes those gorgeous Christmas adverts, is hurting. The prospect of eventually there being no John Lewis’s anywhere, of towns and cities faced with yawning floor-plates and empty pavement-to-ceiling windows, must be very real.

Kingston was not on the list of eight stores that will close. But if councillors have any sense, they should start preparing for what their predecessors would have regarded as unthinkable. Wanted: suggestions for an alternative use of a St Paul’s Cathedral and Olympic-sized swimming pool rolled into one.

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