Wednesday 5 September 2018 6:27 pm

John Lewis have it right: changing tastes show retail’s centre cannot hold

If you look past the shiny new signage on the front of the John Lewis & Partners flagship Oxford Street store, there is a much more interesting change going on inside.

The retailer’s new name is not the only way it is signalling pride in its employees. Partners are becoming more visible throughout stores.

“While others are investing in drones we’re investing in our partners,” was how managing director Paula Nickolds described the shift.

The message is clear: retail is getting up close and personal. In John Lewis stores, there are plans for more personal stylists, as well as a new “beauty concierge” to advise on skincare and make-up. It is all about the human, personalised service.

If you are someone who can barely make eye contact with a self-service machine, this may sound like a daunting prospect. But the contrast between John Lewis’s new strategy and the push towards automated convenience shows how retail is polarising.

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At one end of the scale you have what Accenture’s senior retail strategist Suzy Ross calls “taking retail back to where it was 100 years ago”: a shopkeeper who knows your name and what you’re looking for.

Then there’s the opposite: ordering goods from the comfort of your own home without a shred of human interaction.

Most consumers will be looking for a mix of the two in the years to come. Ross says many people are becoming far more brand-agnostic and are happy to shop a mix of high-end and low-priced items.

However, this means the middle ground is in trouble. It is very similar to the changes we have seen in the restaurant industry where diners either want a classy experience at somewhere like The Ivy or a home-delivered meal. High street retailers, like the casual dining chains, are going to have to decide if they want to do convenience or experience.

In House of Fraser, we have already seen what goes wrong when you dither in the middle. Underinvestment has made the department store seem tired. Mike Ashley will need to take a few notes from John Lewis if he is to give it more life.

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