Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership Corner: JOHN LEWIS: NEVER KNOWINGLY UNDER-EMULATED

In an interview with the Financial Times several years ago, the 6th Duke of Westminster (Gerald Grosvenor) was asked what advice he would give to young entrepreneurs who wanted to emulate his success. The Duke’s family firm, Grosvenor Estates, is a rather large property business. It owns something like 200-300 acres of central London (including Grosvenor Square, naturally, where the houses are phenomenally expensive) and a substantial number of prestigious properties all over the world. It’s part of what made the Duke one of the wealthiest men in the UK. So, it’s not surprising that someone would ask him to share some pearls of wisdom.

You might be wondering what his response was. Well, his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs was: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a close friend of William the Conqueror.”

It’s quite funny. In its own way.

That off-hand remark about having a well-connected ancestor is a bit glib and not terribly useful. But it does make a point rather well – if you want to do well in the future, it helps to have been doing well in the past. Although in reality, the wealth of the Grosvenor family came through marriage in the 17th century. But let’s not sweat the small stuff.

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I was reflecting on all of this while musing on the following question: What can an independent retailer learn from John Lewis?

Maybe the answer is that they should have started out in business more than 150 years ago. Which is just as unhelpful as the Duke of Westminster’s remark. But nowhere near as amusing.

You might think that it’s an odd question – or that it's an odd question in light of the surprisingly poor financial results for the first half of John Lewis’s year. But I do think there are things any retailer can learn from John Lewis, things that can be acted upon now, not things you should have done hundreds of years ago, and the recent profit-drop announcement actually makes it the perfect time to pose this question.

Try to be unique
As Shakespeare put it, to thine own self be true.

A considerable part of what’s currently afflicting John Lewis is its promise to price match rival retailers’ offers; if you find the same item on sale for less somewhere else, John Lewis will match the cheaper price.

But over the last 12 months, two of the UK’s other department store stalwarts – Debenhams and House of Fraser – have been running a lot more promotions as they attempted to prop up falling sales. That meant John Lewis has had to price match many more items than usual. Consequently, it’s being dragged down by the shortcomings of other retailers.

To counter this it is developing an increasing number of its own products – if it’s unique to John Lewis, they’ll never have to price match it.

It’s not likely you need your own branded goods produced. But don’t get caught in a price war with rivals who are desperate enough to keep slashing prices. You need to find your USP and stick to it.

Stand for something
Speaking of USPs, John Lewis has a reputation for great customer care and for looking after its staff (or partners as it calls them). It’s not fool proof and there are always stories about people experiencing shoddy service in a John Lewis (or Waitrose) store or having problems with an online order.

But on the whole, these things are the exception to the rule. The John Lewis name is synonymous with great service and quality. It’s why people are willing to pay a little extra for things in Waitrose, for example. And even though its price matching promise is now causing harm, it has stuck by it. A promise is a promise, and integrity is hard to replace once lost.

Now, maybe you don’t need to launch your own range of Essential Quinoa just yet. But there’s one very obvious take-away from this point. There are no good reasons not to try to delight every single customer each and every time they visit your store. None. Chances are you’d quite like them to come back and shop with you regularly. So pull out all the stops to win their trust and form a lasting relationship.

And if your store serves the local community, build relationships with that wider community, as well as with individual customers. Get involved in what’s going on. Not just with the traders’ association, although that’s a great start. Lots of smaller shops let people put cards in the window, advertising services on offer or things for sale. Don’t just view that as an opportunity to make a little money. It’s the perfect way to find out more about what’s going on in the lives of the people who come into your store. Let it inform your decisions and infuse your conversations. And never forget, your staff are customers too. Treat them well and they will become your greatest ambassadors.

Think ahead
Our friend the 6th Duke of Westminster had the good fortune to look back at… well, his good fortune. But if you can’t do that you can still plan ahead. This is something John Lewis has been spectacularly good at.

While many retailers were still reeling from the aftermath of the global financial crisis, John Lewis was putting a new supply chain strategy into action and investing heavily in its logistics capabilities. And it’s really paid off. As e-commerce caught hold and really took off in the UK John Lewis was ideally placed to benefit from it. It also meant that when interest in click and collect began to grow, it was able to roll that service out to all its John Lewis and Waitrose stores.

In recent years, John Lewis has been paying down debt. In fact, its total net debt has fallen by £700 million over the last two years, its pension deficit has been halved, and it is investing more than ever in new product lines. These are hugely important considerations; while rival department store operators have racked up debt to the point where it contributed to their downfall, John Lewis is making sure it won’t find itself in that position.

Trying to emulate the successes of others is rarely going to lead you to the same results. But getting under the skin of the mindset and strategy of those businesses that always seem to be doing well can help you refine your own strategies as well as identify areas where you might need additional help. Best of all, you don’t need to have had a famous ancestor to start getting things right today.

Parcelly adds We could not agree more with the point that putting the customer at the heart, continuing to innovate and invest into a great product, as well as giving back to local communities are some of the best ingredients for future success. We see retailers continuing to thrive who understand their customer's needs, evolve with their demands and find that competitive advantage to stand out of the crowd. Waitrose piloting 2h delivery slots, Zara opening a digital flagstore and Amazon inventing Prime Wardrobe and Amazon Go are just a few examples of how successful retailers are catering for growing requests for convenience and immediacy. Technological advancements keep driving societal changes, resulting in the rise of on-demand and single-use consumption, whilst a strong force for sustainable, social and environmental awareness keeps rising at the same time.

Parcelly's innovative 'PUDO 2.0' model disrupted an entire industry back in 2014, and revolutionised the traditional click&collect concept introducing a lean, agnostic and highly versatile technology platform designed to streamline first-and last mile fulfilment, drive cooperation along the supply chain whilst also triggering positive environmental and social effects. Our business partners are our most important asset and many of our Parcelly location network partners are family businesses who keep emulating what works, keep innovating and catering to their loyal customer's needs.  

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