New John Lewis boss Sharon White faces a daunting task as chain takes Christmas hit

Good luck to Ofcom’s Sharon White as she takes over as boss of the john Lewis Partnership when the owner of the eponymous department stores reports Christmas like for like sales down two per cent and dispenses with the service of John Lewis MD Paula Nickolds, bizarre timing as White (below), who has no retail experience, presumably needs all the help she can get.

It’s all part of departing chairman Charlie Mayfield’s restructuring, putting one management in charge of John Lewis and supermarket chain Waitrose (which did pretty well with like for like sales up four per cent.)

White has one shot in her armoury that Mayfield hasn’t fired yet, dropping the store chain’s “never knowingly undersold” promise which is a suicide note at a time when most rival shops are heavily discounting all year. Without this it’s hard to see much of a future for John Lewis.

Retailers are calling this the worst Christmas for 25 years although their computations don’t include the likes of Amazon, which seems to have done a roaring trade. Among other supermarkets Tesco inched up, although much of this was due to its Booker wholesale business, M&S was down a bit, Sainsbury’s did better than expected although its Argos acquisition didn’t.

Does this mean that the zillions poured into Christmas ads (John Lewis had Edgar the dragon) was wasted?

Very likely, given that consumer tastes and expectations seem to have changed. Online obviously is growing but many younger consumers in particular find the amount of money splurged on Christmas absurd and, as is their wont, not good for the planet. Cinema and pub and restaurant sales were up, which says a lot about changing priorities.

The UK high street won’t disappear and neither will supermarkets. But it’ll to be a tough start to 2020 as the rent bills come in for some struggling household names.

John Lewis’ Dame Sharon, who made her name as a civil servant before joining Ofcom, had better find some compelling new tools in her Treasury toolbox.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.