What your business can learn from John Lewis

There are many things I don’t understand about women (memo to self – tell wife there isn’t a blog this week…)

One of them – and it never fails – is a woman’s reaction when you mention the words ‘John Lewis.’ It’s the retail equivalent of saying ‘Johnny Depp’ or ‘George Clooney.’

The other weekend found us driving past Meadowhall – and driving past is what I would have kept on doing, but Dav had other ideas. “What is it about John Lewis?” I asked her that night. “You, my mother, every woman I know. Say ‘John Lewis’ and they all go weak at the knees.”

My wife explained patiently. “Their whole range is good quality, Ed. Maybe not the absolute best, but well above average. And the baseline starts at ‘good.’ They sell everything, but there are those little idiosyncratic touches. It feels personal, not corporate. And unlike (name of store deleted to save legal costs) the staff actually give a damn.”

A few days later I was reading Management Today. And hey presto, there was an interview with Charlie Mayfield, the relatively new chairman of the John Lewis Partnership. And as I read it, I started to see lessons for all of us – never mind what size your business is.

Quality is remembered…I know, it’s probably the oldest cliché in the business book, but quality really is remembered long after the price is forgotten – as long as you give value for money and consistent quality. My Mum must have been shopping at John Lewis for thirty years or more. “And they’ve never let me down,” she says.

They communicate a simple message brilliantly. If you haven’t seen it, go to YouTube and watch the John Lewis 2010 ad, featuring Billy Joel’s ‘Always a Woman.’ Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/ldmLY1 I don’t have a daughter but it brought a tear to my eye – and at the end a very simple message: Never knowingly undersold on quality, price or service. And then the absolute clincher: Our lifelong commitment to you.

Involve your staff – it’s well known that the staff at John Lewis aren’t staff at all: they’re partners and share in the profits. But while many businesses offer profit sharing, how many really listen to their staff. I remember once reading a copy of the John Lewis Gazette. Blimey. As it said in Management Today, “the sort of publication that would make the politburos of some plc’s have kittens.” Or as Charlie Mayfield put it, “People feel valued. So they perform better. That’s a very powerful performance lever.”

They’re going online. “Bricks, mortar and rents are costly,” said MT, “Especially in the prime sites John Lewis favours. Mayfield sees huge potential and fatter margins in the lower overheads of online.” If the internet isn’t playing an increasingly important part in every aspect of your business – sales, marketing, customer service and all-the-other-jobs-you-have-to-do… then it should.

Finally, don’t be afraid to look at ‘success’ differently. John Lewis is undoubtedly a British success story – but how do they define success? Interestingly, there’s a definition in the original John Lewis constitution – the company’s original mission statement (if the term had been around in 1929). Every morning when Charlie Mayfield sits down at his desk he’s charged with delivering success measured by the happiness of those working in [the business] and by its good service to the general community.

Not quite the traditional bottom line, but maybe if we all followed the John Lewis model the bottom line would take care of itself…



  1. Dick Jennings · May 12, 2011

    So how much is John Lewis paying you for this blog, Ed? Perhaps in vouchers for next time at Meadowhall?

    • edreidyork · May 13, 2011

      Dick – I can’t believe that even crossed your mind – that’s bordering on a scandalous allegation!! (Vouchers obviously would have been very welcome – big brownie points in the Reid household!)

  2. Neil Campbell · May 13, 2011

    A good one Ed. Thanks

  3. al fox · May 13, 2011

    Nice piece Ed and thanks for drawing my attention to that TV ad. Had never seen it before. Great ad although quite depressing in a way!

    Yes, so many businesses could learn a lot from John Lewis. I notice the attitude in the staff at Waitrose (John Lewis group) – they are a world apart from those in other supermarkets. They actually care about the customer.

    • edreidyork · May 13, 2011

      Hi Al – thanks for joining in the comments – know what you mean about the ad, and the Waitrose staff – it really does set them apart, doesn’t it. And funnily enough we return as customers…

  4. Dave Rawlings · May 13, 2011

    Plenty of good lessons to take from the John Lewis model. Watching the “Always a Woman” ad has left me feeling quite sentimental – so I’ll refrain from further comment so I can’t say anything embarrassing!

    • edreidyork · May 13, 2011

      Dave – I think I’d have enjoyed some Friday afternoon sentimentality! Never mind, another time perhaps?

  5. Jo Yeates · May 16, 2011

    Yep, Ed, you’ve got the female of the species absolutely spot on here (and of course some wise observations about the JL business model!). Thanks goodness for the JL online service – here in North Yorkshire, I don’t get a JL “fix” very often. Next development on their website should be a “virtual fabric fondling” option. Have you noticed how women go around shops touching things they have no intention of buying….?

  6. edreidyork · May 16, 2011

    Well Jo, that’s the first time I’ve been told I’ve got the female of the species “absolutely spot on”, and quite possible the last, so Thanks!

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