Moving With the Times: How John Lewis Innovates to Stay at the Forefront of Retail

Nat Chrzanowska

Oct 15, 2021 • 7 min read
John Lewis interview hero

The saying goes, “If you’re standing still, you’re going backward,” and innovation is clearly a significant factor in John Lewis’s success.

Despite the last year being one of the most challenging in its 156-year history, the company was able to quickly adapt and maintained its position as the number one brand in the UK for the fourth year running.

When the pandemic struck, the John Lewis Partnership rapidly digitalized services that were previously only available in-store, including personal styling appointments, nursery advice, wine tasting, and cookery courses. In the 12 months to January 2021, Johnlewis.com accounted for 75% of the brand’s sales, up from 40% before the crisis, and Waitrose.com grew fourfold from February 2020.

As the company’s five year Partnership Plan confirms its commitment to developing new customer propositions to secure a successful future for the business, we wanted to know how the John Lewis Partnership successfully leverages innovation to stay ahead.

To find out, we spoke to Will Rooney, Senior Services Development & Delivery Manager. For Will, innovation is about curiosity, creating something that can make a real difference in people's lives, and refusing to settle for the mediocre. In his role, he leads a team of people dedicated to improving and developing the services that John Lewis and Waitrose offer in their stores in the UK.

The pandemic was a catalyst for transformation in retail

Even before the pandemic, consumers were increasingly using digital shopping channels. Then, as lockdowns and restrictions forced the closure of physical stores almost overnight, ecommerce skyrocketed, dramatically accelerating the shift towards digital channels. In the UK alone, online transactions as a percentage of retail sales rose from 15.8% in 2019 to 23.3% in 2020.

John Lewis was quick to react to the developments of the pandemic, allowing it to leverage opportunities and pave the way for operational changes that will pay off into the future.

As customer payment preferences shifted during the pandemic, the Partnership looked for ways to make the most of these changes.

"Customers began using more contactless and card payments, which helped to speed up the service at our tills,"

explains Will.

“That gave us a whole load of man-hours that we were able to pull back into service.”

The increasing adoption and acceptance of cashless payments will also help the company when it implements mobile point of sale (mPOS) capabilities in its stores.

“I honestly believe it's going to change the face of how we serve our customers and be a big game-changer for the shops,” says Will.

“Not only will mPOS give us the ability to serve our customers anywhere in the shop or indeed outside of the shop space, it will be run on an online selling platform. At the moment, we’re developing the capability for the online selling platform to talk directly to the shop selling platform, so it's one system for all customer orders and a truly omnichannel operation.”

The pandemic also necessitated improvements in the efficiency of stock management to allow John Lewis to respond at pace to the increasing shift to online shopping, which included moving products from shops while they were closed during lockdown.

“We got a team of Partners into each of our shops to start collecting items that were selling quickly, and the distribution network would collect those items and send them back to the warehouse instead,”

explains Will.

“Now that we’re open again, if we're out of stock online, we've got the facility to see which shops have stock and send the picking order to the shop and then send the product out to the customer as if it was an online order. It means we are more effective in how we use our stock.”

Innovation can be taught, but it needs the right conditions

The John Lewis Partnership has been successfully adapting its business and thriving for over a century, thanks to its strong culture. While many people debate whether innovation can be taught, Will believes it can. “You don't necessarily have to be a creative person to be innovative, so long as you're asking the right questions and you're looking at them in the right areas,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges for retailers in cultivating successful innovation is challenging the norm, and the Partnership works hard to avoid this. “As an employee-owned culture, it is designed to encourage Partners to share ideas through numerous channels, including a number of ideas platforms, to give feedback and, if needed, challenge,” explains Will.

Will is also focused on fostering an innovative environment for his team. “I believe passionately in creating a culture that’s open and honest, and people aren't afraid to say what they think. That's where you get the best ideas, and you also get the best challenges to bad ideas to help bottom that out,” he says.

Innovation is a mindset

Having good people on board is critical for successful innovation in any organization, but Will notes that the right values and attitude are more important than knowledge.

"I'm looking for people that are curiously minded, think pragmatically, and aren’t afraid to challenge the norm,"

Will says. “I think it's about being able to talk to people, having personality, and being able to interact with people with understanding and open-mindedness."

Innovation is about more than problem-solving

While some companies adopt a purely reactive innovation strategy, that’s not how John Lewis approaches it. “We look both internally and externally for perspective, and it's not just problems that we look for. It's about identifying opportunities – being at the forefront of something new is really exciting,” says Will.

“As a Partnership, we are fairly unique in that we are all owners of our business. That means we're able to make longer-term decisions without having to chase a fast result that may not be a sustainable decision for the future of our business.”

In terms of process, his team doesn’t rely on any particular framework or tools. “Everything we do has to align with the strategic direction at a higher level, and our different priority streams are created from that,” explains Will.

“Personal experience is always a great place to start, and I would also use focus groups. The people that are living and breathing your products are often able to suggest the best improvements that you need to interpret and think of ways of bringing that innovation to life.”

Looking to the future

The effect of the pandemic on consumer behavior has caused many to question whether this is the end for bricks-and-mortar stores, but Will is confident they will always have a place. “We already have lots of initiatives and services in place to make sure our physical space complements the online world and we realize the benefit of having both,” he says.

"For example, click and collect is something that our customers appreciate and value. And we value it because it drives footfall back into our shops, showcasing more products and services to our customers."

Will adds: "I think there's a balance to be had, but we have plenty of plans to continue doing more of this.”

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Nat Chrzanowska

Content Lead at Netguru
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