Today I was walking through David Jones, a department store considered to be Australia’s finest. I was lost and alone, with no one to turn to, and confused that the nursery section was not on the fourth floor right next to “Place to Eat” where it should have been. And it struck me. I missed John Lewis.
There is the informal familiarity, the sense when you walk in that you have come home. This is not because the customers all look like your gran, or because your house is full of John Lewis’ trademark furniture. There is something soothing about the layout and lighting. It isn’t designed to dazzle or confuse you, it is trying to guide you to the section you need rather than trap you in the section you should avoid.
There are staff everywhere, wearing that classic badge that glistens in the comforting lighting like a beacon of hope. Remarkably for a department store, the staff want to help you, they seem to know their products and when they don’t know, they disappear and actually reappear with someone who does know.
The cafes (such as Place to Eat) have healthy children’s meals and whilst they are overpopulated with the over-60’s, these diners don’t mind if you flash your stretch-marked and sagging post-partum belly and boobs whilst you feed yet another baby there. The cafe staff don’t seem to mind that whilst I am mentally and physically regrouping for the next phase of shopping, my children are making elaborate structures out of sugar sachets, spilling some (a lot) as they go.
John Lewis stands by its warranties, its quality and as it says, “Never Knowingly Undersold”. Shortly before we left London, my son’s scaletrix car broke. Without hesitation they sent me a new set and asked that I send in the broken set using Freepost. A friend suggested that as we were leaving the country I should keep the tracks from the old set and build a super-circuit for my son. I just could not do it. There is a lifelong social contract between the store and its customers.
Years ago, my husband attended a meeting with senior executives at John Lewis. One of his colleagues jokingly mentioned that in her online shopping, she had received a salad from Waitrose (part of the John Lewis partnership) that was past its expiry date. Shortly afterwards, the branch manager at her local Waitrose made a house-call with a fresh salad. True story, now the stuff of urban legends.
John Lewis does not take itself too seriously, realising that it is only a department store (not a “lifestyle space”) but equally, taking it’s role in our consumer community seriously enough, with an outstanding record for corporate social responsibility. Unlike Selfridges, the staff don’t look down on you, and unlike Harrods, the customers don’t look down on you. It truly feels like a partnership.
From time to time I unpack one of our boxes from London, and find that I have used a John Lewis bag to wrap something. I admit I take the bag, hold the reassuring diagonal green stripes to my chest and sigh.