‘You’d come out feeling better’: shoppers on changes at John Lewis

When John Lewis announced it would not reopen its Sheffield store after the pandemic, Margaret Dakin was devastated. “The shock was literally like being hit,” she says.

Dakin, 62, has marked life’s big occasions in the city’s John Lewis store. “I bought every significant item from that shop: material for my wedding dress, outfits for grand occasions … my oven,” she says of the department store known until 2002 as Cole Brothers. “When I bought my first house as a skint local government officer in the 1980s, I saved up enough money to buy my living room carpet from there.”

Margaret Dakin
Margaret Dakin: ‘I bought every significant item in my life from that shop.’ Photograph: Margaret Dakin

It had also been where, as a young worker, she bought herself treats: “a lipstick, some nice tights, shoes in the sale”.

As well as offering high-quality goods and service, the retired housing manager says the store provided a social element. “It was a nice building – it’s always been somewhere to meet friends, or if you felt a bit fed up, you could spend two hours there and come out feeling a bit better.”

“You get to know the staff. I would go and buy shoes and the man knew what I liked – same with the people in the furniture department. Online shopping is not the same; I like to touch what I’m buying.”

In Dakin’s view, losing the department store “ripped the centre out of Sheffield”. Her mother-in-law, who is 85, would go there once a week; she hasn’t been into the city centre since the store closed its doors. “She has become increasingly isolated,” she says. “That was her treat – it makes you feel like you’re still in society.”

The company’s Sheffield department store is one of several that closed during the pandemic. And it could be the end of an era, after reports signalled the loss-making firm may dilute its 100% employee-owned model after 70 years.

A Victorian-era etching of Cole Brothers, as the Sheffield department store was known until 2002.
A Victorian-era etching of Cole Brothers, as the Sheffield department store was known until 2002. Photograph: Mick Flynn/Alamy

Sharon White, who as chair of the John Lewis Partnership runs the department stores and Waitrose, has warned of job losses and scrapped bonuses, saying: “Inflation hit us like a hurricane.”

Simon Clawson
Simon Clawson, a ‘John Lewis kid’. Photograph: Simon Clawson

For some families, questions about the company’s future loom large. Simon Clawson, 48, grew up as a “John Lewis kid”: his father worked for the company, on and off, for four decades, until the age of 75, in roles including service porter, security and receptionist. “The social secretary arranged many of the trips to theme parks, theatres, airshows and even weeks away we took as children,” Clawson, a teacher from Milton Keynes, recalls.

“There was an annual gala for all branches – it was like a big fancy dress party and there would be rides and games. It was part of the ethos of the company.” He even met his lifelong best friend – a fellow John Lewis kid – through the firm.

The staff discount and bonus allowed the family to get their first home computer “and many other life-changing things we’d otherwise have struggled to have”, he says. “I love that version of John Lewis. I was proud my dad worked there. We were really looked after.”

Clawson, 48, says his father was “a bit heartbroken” to hear the firm could change its ownership model. He didn’t believe it at first, Clawson says. It was almost the kind of thing that would require “an act of parliament” to change, his father said. Clawson says diluting the model would be “the beginning of the end”.

Simon Clawson with his dad, brother and best friend on a John Lewis trip to Alton Towers in the 1990s.
Simon Clawson with his dad, brother and best friend on a John Lewis trip to Alton Towers in the 1990s. Photograph: Alton Towers

For composer Jennie, 68, watering down the ownership model would be a “dealbreaker”.

“If John Lewis drops their policy of the staff owning the shares, I will no longer shop there. I could tolerate their higher prices more easily, knowing the profits went to the staff. But if that’s gone, I’ll be gone too.”

Jennie has shopped at John Lewis less in recent years, and cites the end of the “never knowingly undersold” policy, which was retired in August 2022. “It’s expensive and they don’t stick to the all-important ‘never knowingly undersold’ principle,” she says. “Before it seemed like a place I could trust. You didn’t have to do your research on Which? Going to John Lewis was a no-brainer.”

But her memories of visiting the London and Watford stores as a child remain clear in her mind, from the sound of shoppers’ shoes on linoleum and the smell of the “phenomenal” fabric department. “Mum made us dresses that I used to hate wearing, and curtains too.

“It was always quite an outing to go there and look through all prints. School uniforms, shoes, our household stuff. Machines. Clothes. All that came from John Lewis.”


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