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John Lewis and the value of “Beigeness”

India Knight has written an excellent piece in her Sunday Times column today. It’s all about John Lewis thinking about changing it’s image to broaden it’s appeal, to shake off it’s “fuddy-duddy” image. Craig Inglis who is Director of Marketing at John Lewis is reacting to the accusation of John Lewis being “beige at times”. John Lewis is embarking on the biggest revamp revamp of it’s marketing and advertising in 147 years according to an article in Marketing Week Magazine. India is somewhat aghast at the notion that John Lewis is going to change it’s approach and lose it’s “Beigeness” to compete with the likes of Tesco and other large supermarkets. India presents a good set of arguments for not making such a change, all of which I agree with.
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If john Lewis did greatly change it’s approach I would be somewhat dismayed. John Lewis is not that “fuddy-duddy” or indeed that “Beige” yes I’m sure it needs to revamp and update many of it’s stores. We have a lovely John Lewis store in the Grafton Arcade in Cambridge, it is modern, well stocked and very popular and not just with “ladies of a certain age”. John Lewis in my mind occupies an almost unique position in British retail, it has a personality, this is expressed really well through their staff whose attentiveness and ability to provide excellent customer service is well documented. I cannot think of single other high street retailer that currently has such an effect. Marks & Spencers is an obvious direct competitor to John Lewis and Waitrose, but even though they are good, they don’t have the same level of personality that John Lewis has.

John Lewis has managed to maintain it’s retailer dignity rather than be consumed by the retail commerce conveyor belt and the shallowness of celebrity glamour and instant satisfaction that others seem to suffer from. People buy from people. John Lewis is all about people. You go to John Lewis because they represent in no particular order; quality, top products, fabulous customer service and reliability. Its not a shop to rush around in, it is a lovely browsing experience and you’ll always discover or spot something new that you didn’t know they stocked. They don’t get everything right but they are streets ahead of other retailers on actually having a personality.

Tesco is totally soulless, it represents a core function, the weekly shop – which we all need – and that is fine, it has it’s place too. They are very good at what they do, they are cheap, obviously lots of people like that. However they don’t have the best quality produce and they’re not great at customer service, that may be fine for their customer base. So I hope Mr. Inglis knows what he is doing, I’m not saying don’t change anything, change is proactive and should be happening all the time BUT be very careful about changing the personality of the retailer, especially one with such a unique reputation. If John Lewis has to stoop to the level of Tesco to compete on the high street at the expense of it’s personality then it will be a sad day for British retailing.

In setting up our online business we have modeled our philosophy on certain elements of a number of retailers, elements that we admire and feel are important to customers. John Lewis is one of the retailers that we admire. Tesco’s isn’t.

So next time you are in John Lewis, have a little think about why you’ve gone in there, how you feel while you are there and what you like about shopping in John Lewis. Appreciate it because it may not be the same in a year’s time. Please feel free to add your comments to this post so others can read your thoughts about the importance or not of British retailers having a “personality” and don’t confuse this with “brand” or “marketing” because it’s not actually the same thing at all.

This post is inspired by India Knights Sunday Times Column on Sunday 5th June 2011 titled “Sing – nice and softly, mind – if you’re glad to be beige”

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