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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... John Lewis Heritage Centre

Working in Partnership – We learn more about this revolutionary business model at this British retail giant's museum.

On a dreary March day, I visited the John Lewis Heritage Centre, in the town of Cookham in Berkshire, England, home to the archive of the UK’s best-known staff-owned company.


My experience with the British retail company John Lewis & Partners is like many in the UK I imagine. My mother bought me school clothes at the George Henry Lee store in Liverpool. I shopped for workwear at Tyrrell & Green in Southampton. Now I'm buying homewares at John Lewis Edinburgh and Glasgow. A trip to John Lewis always felt familiar and with their extended product guarantees, high-quality products, excellent customer service, and commitment to ethical and sustainable business practices, there was a level of trust there and consumers widely felt they had received value for money. While the rest of the high street was dominated by uncaring tycoons, John Lewis was something unique.


John Lewis & Partners operates over thirty department stores, selling a wide range of products, from clothing and accessories to electronics and home goods. They also operate John Lewis & Partners at Home homeware stores, hundreds of Waitrose supermarkets, and a portfolio of other businesses, from broadband to financial services. It can trace its history from a humble drapers shop to one of the UK's favourite department stores. Known for its generous staff bonus and its iconic Christmas advert, John Lewis remains a stalwart of the high street. But in these changing times, for how long?


Department stores changed the way we shopped, shaped global culture and became theatres of retail experience. However, department stores in the UK have been facing significant challenges in recent years, which have led to the loss of iconic brands such as Debenhams and House of Fraser.


The growth of online shopping has been a major disruptor for the retail industry, causing traditional brick-and-mortar retailers to struggle to compete with the convenience and often lower prices of e-commerce.


The recent rise in costs for fuel and raw materials, coupled with an economic downturn, all coming after the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns in the UK, has hammered the high street. It exacerbated many of the issues already facing the sector, such as increased online shopping and declining footfall. Mintel reported that the value of the sector declined by 25% to £11 billion in 2020.


Overall, the decline of department stores in the UK is a complex issue with many contributing factors. While some retailers have adapted to the changing retail landscape, by investing in e-commerce or focusing on experiential offerings, others have struggled to keep up and have been forced to close their doors.


But as we witness the decline of the department store model, it is important to remember and protect the legacy that some of these ionic brands created and celebrate those that will rise to the challenge, to provide consumers with something deeper than an online experience.


Experiential retail is a growing trend in the retail industry, creating engaging and memorable experiences for customers. By investing in in-store events, interactive displays, pop-up stores, store design, and social media integration, retailers can differentiate themselves from their competitors and create more loyal and engaged customers.


So why are there so few department stores that have an archive or museum that the public can visit? Surely a museum space could create an additional experience for the customer and create opportunities for new product launches, themed events and more. I visited the Magasin du Nord museum in Copenhagen in November 2022 and will bring you that report soon. Others do have galleries for art and design collaboration such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris, or have online archives


When you consider the big names in department stores such as Harrods, Selfridges, Bloomingdales and others, then I wonder why more don’t have a visitor experience to build advocacy and engagement with their customers.


The brand history

In the late 1700s, London was full of small shops, drapers. tailors, milliners, shoemakers, haberdashers, furriers, silk merchants and more. By the early 1800s, the most successful merchants began to extend their range of products and often purchased neighbouring businesses, incorporating their retail lines into their own stores. The goods were sold in different departments within these new larger stores, and the term department store evolved. London's department stores became hugely successful and household names, due to their proximity to the theatre district, royal connections and good transport links.

John Lewis was born in Somerset, England in 1836 and orphaned before he was eight. In his teens, he became an apprentice to the top silk merchant in London, before setting up his own drapery and haberdashery business in 1864, on what has become the world-famous Oxford Street. The John Lewis store expanded into neighbouring properties, emerging as a fully-fledged department flagship store in 1885. It is still operating on the same site today. The store become synonymous with service and value. But, for its workers, things were not so positive. Hours were long, conditions poor and pay low, typical of many Victorian businesses of the day and Lewis was regarded as an autocratic employer.

John’s sons, John Spedan Lewis and Oswald Lewis joined the company in 1906. Both were given £50,000 and a quarter share of the business. But, they had very different views on management and equality. Spedan worked out that the annual salaries of John, Oswald and himself, were the same as the combined salaries of every one of the 300 staff working for them and thought this very unfair. He raised his concerns to his father, but he was unrepentant.


John Lewis, rather than concerning himself with workers' rights, was looking to expand his empire and walked to the Sloane Square location of ailing competitor Peter Jones, with twenty £1,000 notes in his pocket. He bought the rival store there and then, incorporated it into his business. However, John had little interest in the new venture, reluctantly putting his son Spedan in part-time charge. The two never saw eye to eye.


A riding accident in 1909 saw Spedan take prolonged convalescence and gave the retailer time to rethink his father's business model. Why couldn’t the stores share the profits more equally, for the benefit of all employees? In 1916, following an explosive disagreement with his father, Spedan Lewis left the Oxford Street store to run Peter Jones full-time.


Their management styles couldn't have been further apart, and in the face of the hardships of the Great Depression in the 1920s, this became increasingly evident.


John's dominating style came into focus on April 27, 1920, when 400 of his department store staff opted for strike action, timed to coincide with a major John Lewis sale, which was filmed for Pathe news. They were demanding trade union representation for better pay and working conditions. John fired them all on the spot. The public, other traders, and even Royalty raised money for the protestors, but it was to no avail, as John's decision was final. His sons, especially Spedan, had had enough.

Spedan wanted to demonstrate a dramatic change in business relations and hatched a plan, to make Peter Jones a Limited Liability Company, in which all employees, or "partners", were to be shareholders, and given a portion of the profits proportionate to their pay. His father wasn’t best pleased. But Spedan wasn't finished. He wanted to improve the working conditions for his staff, set up staff committees where everyone had a voice, extend holidays and reduce the working day, all to boost morale and improve productivity. He encouraged the shop staff to take an interest in sport and started a staff magazine. Under the 'Never knowingly undersold' campaign, which Spedan introduced in 1925, and which was still a brand commitment until 2022, the store committed to refund customers the difference if they found the same item on sale elsewhere for a lower price.


On his father's death, aged 92 in 1928, Spedan took over control of both stores and signed the First Trust Settlement, transferring shares to a board of trustees on behalf of the Partners and the John Lewis Partnership Ltd was formed. It began distributing profits among its employees in 1929. Partnership benefit, as it was called, was distributed in the form of shares, which could be realised for cash. The company went from strength to strength, acquiring the grocery business Waitrose in 1937.


In 1950, Spedan signed the Second Trust Settlement, which transferred all his remaining shares and control of the business to the trustees and he resigned as chair in 1955, being known within the company from then on as "The Founder".


John Spedan Lewis died, aged 77, in February 1963 at his home in Hampshire. With a love of nature, The John Spedan Lewis Foundation (JSLF) was established in 1964 in his memory and continues to support natural history and wildlife conservation.


The Oxford Street store remains the brand’s flagship store and was refurbished in 2007 at a cost of £60 million.

Today the company employs approximately 80, 800 partners.


In terms of customer satisfaction, John Lewis & Partners has consistently ranked highly in various surveys and studies. For example, in a 2021 survey by Which, John Lewis & Partners was rated as the second-best department store in the UK, with customers praising its product quality, customer service, and in-store experience. The company has also received high ratings in other surveys, such as the UK Customer Satisfaction Index.


In 2020, John Lewis & Partners announced that it would be closing eight of its stores permanently due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.


2023 sees the third year of the brand's transformation strategy. The company has stated that it remains committed to its employee-owned business model and its focus on ethical and sustainable practices.


in 2022, John Lewis decided to end its “never knowingly undersold” price match pledge, saying it had lost its relevance as it did not apply to online-only retailers, with whom shoppers were increasingly deciding to spend.


In the face of losses in the last few years and the cost of living crisis, the retail giant has warned of potential job cuts and told staff it would not hand out a bonus for only the second time since 1953. The brand did, however, help with employee financial assistance over the winter of 2022/23 for those facing increased travel, childcare and living costs. The brand has invested in British farmers to allow them to maintain high animal welfare standards and launched an initiative providing jobs for young people who have grown up in the care system. They are investing in greater sustainability measures, improving customer experience and product ranges, and even developing children's play areas in some stores.


"We’re not just employees; together we own the Partnership. That’s a huge responsibility as well as a privilege - in the good times and when it’s tough. I feel it acutely. By seizing the opportunities to transform, we will secure the Partnership’s future for another 100 years." ( Dame Sharon White, Partner and Chair - JOHN LEWIS PARTNERSHIP RESULTS FOR THE YEAR ENDED 28 JANUARY 2023)


Rumours that the Partnership model might be diluted, with portions of the brand being sold to an outside investor, drove well-known government advisor, high street campaigner and leading retail consultant, Mary Portas to challenge the brand in an open letter online. Like me, she feels that we must protect the core values that the brand stood for and face the future drawing inspiration and hope from the past, to deliver a deeper customer experience in the changing face of the future.


I will visit the flagship Oxford Street John Lewis store next time I am in London as they have hired a Visitor Experience Director, employed a concierge, are sending their employees to theatre school to help them engage better with customers and have installed a pub, rooftop garden, personalisation and more.


Although no brand is perfect, I wish them well, as the high street would not be the same without them.


The Visitor Centre design

Opened in 2013, the John Lewis Heritage Centre is housed at the Odney Club, a private members club located next to the River Thames, with a restaurant, manor house, hotel and therapy suite. It is one of the brand’s employee benefits that remains to this day. The partners have had access to several residential clubs, acquired over the years by the company, where employees could enjoy a variety of sports and social activities, stay for a holiday or even rent rooms to live in.


FSP Architects & Planners with construction company Conamar turned the part derelict 17/19th Century Grove Farm barns, used by the brand's Odney Pottery during World War II, into the new £1.5m heritage centre.


The company archive, curated since the mid-1960s, was housed in a warehouse in Stevenage. With the closure of this warehouse, the collection needed a new home.

The new 590 sq m building houses a private archive strong room plus an impressive sample swatch archive of over 38,000 textiles dating from 1800 onwards, from the collection of Stead McAlpin, a fabric printing company in Carlisle, Cumbria, once owned by the Partnership, which is accessible to Partners, designers and researchers. There is also dedicated space for Partners to learn crafts and exhibitions showcasing the brand's history to the public.


The heritage centre was opened on the 100th anniversary of the formation of the John Lewis Partnership, and the 150th anniversary of the first John Lewis shop in Oxford Street, London.


The design won the Best Small Commercial Building and Best Change of Use of an Existing Building or Conversion categories at the Central LABC Building Excellence Awards in 2014.


The centre’s aim is 'protecting the past, inspiring the future.'


Entrance

Designers used a Charles Voysey textile pattern, from around 1887, which was found in the archive, as the inspiration for the design of the external timber cladding. Voysey was influenced by the arts and crafts designers William Morris and John Ruskin and was friends with the designer of the original Peter Jones store in London. It was due to this link that his design was chosen for the façade.


The archive

The Cummersdale Design Collection textile archive is open to the general public, who can walk through a viewing gallery that contains over 7,000 of the archive’s designs, from famous designers such as Robin and Lucienne Day, Charles Voysey and William Morris. Visitors cannot take photographs inside the archive, so I only have a quick snap from the doorway.

Working at two tables within the archive space, were two volunteers, both former employees/Partners. Both told me tales from their working life, showed me some of their favourite designs and reminisced with me on my family memories of John Lewis stores I have visited since I was a child.


The Museum Space

The museum galleries are not large and have several displays on different themes.


The first small display features some props from the iconic John Lewis Christmas TV advertisement campaigns. The first John Lewis Christmas advert 'Shadows', aired back in 2007 and since then the annual advert has been eagerly anticipated. For some, it is seen as the start of the festive period. Though these adverts originally were purely designed to promote products as potential Christmas gifts, they evolved into heartwarming short films, that have increasingly come with a deeper message, often linked with charity campaigns. Everyone has their favourites and mine were The Journey (2012) and The Long Wait (2011). Truly, hankies at the ready stuff.

Next are some displays on the subsidised social and sporting clubs that Spedan Lewis insisted should be made available for all partners. This included giving tickets for the opera and providing sports facilities for fishing, sailing, clay pigeon shooting and more.

The Odney Club, on whose grounds the Heritage Centre sits, was just one of several private clubs that the brand created for its partners/staff.

The next section was an area to encourage people, partners or the general public, to share their memories of the brand, through their "Partnership Stories" oral history campaign. The centre provided a comfy chair and branded cushion, and a member of staff was on hand to record the memories for future posterity. Great to see that this is a growing and valued resource which can be preserved and used for a whole manner of activities in the future. I have worked on oral history projects with a whole range of clients in the past and they often deliver fascinating primary source material and many surprising and memorable stories.

Next visitors can see the original Constitution from 1929 sitting alongside the current one. The Constitution forms the rules by which the Partnership is governed.

You can see an example of one of the employees share promise certificates. This is from the time when Spedan was running Peter Jones, but could not persuade his father to share the business profits with the employees. These promise certificates, signed by Spedan himself, were replaced by shares in 1929 when he finally created the Partnership.

Next is a ballot box used in what was my nearest store when I was growing up, G H Lee in Liverpool.

There are several pictures of stores throughout the ages, including one of Tyrrell and Green's in Southampton, that I used to shop in.

Something else that caught my eye, was a box of duplicate recipe cards from in-store food campaigns, made available from the archive to visitors to take away. Simple but effective.

On show is a kiln that was taken out of the pottery buildings that were renovated into the Heritage Centre. Spedan Lewis planned to set up a craft college in Cookham and was given the details of a Welsh craft potter and his wife, who had been retraining unemployed miners to become potters. John Bew moved with his wife to Grove Farm and set up the Odney Pottery, recruiting ex-servicemen living with post-traumatic stress after the Second World War. His creations have been exhibited at national festivals and owned by the Royal family. After his tragic death, the doors to the pottery were locked and remained so until the work on the visitor centre started in 2012. You can find out more about this fascinating story on the John Lewis Memory page.


Time for some nostalgia. There are several historic artefacts on show from way before my daughter was born, that she had fun looking at. There were things like sewing machines, dress patterns to a Swan Teasmaid, and even an Apple Macbook from the 1990s.


Fun fact - John Lewis was the first retailer in the UK to stock Apple products.


There's a till from a Waitrose shop dating from before the 1970s. That's even before my time.

Waitrose

What neither of us realised, is that the grocery side of the Partnership, Waitrose, gets its name from Wallace Wyndham Waite, Arthur Rose and David Taylor, who opened their first shop in London in 1904. Following the departure of Mr Taylor, Waite and Rose formed Waitrose Ltd in 1908.

There is a small display of items that have been stocked at Waitrose over the years. Font fanatics such as myself will be very happy, as there are plenty of interesting typefaces on show. The large sign was uncovered in Pimlico, London, following the renovation of the storefront of a bookmaker’s shop. Underneath was another even earlier sign and both are now in the brand's archive.

My daughter's most memorable exhibit though was a shopping cart/trolley from an early Waitrose store.


It was small and very narrow, so it would fit down the equally narrow aisles of the store, and was designed to take what was then a weekly shop. Shopping habits have indeed changed over the years.


The brand has an online Memory Store that has much more information on its history that is well worth a look.


Spedan's Office

There's a small area dedicated to the life of Spedan Lewis. It is based in part of the original farm building and includes the original fireplace. There is a short film on the brand's history and some personal items such as Spedan's microscope and a chess set. Not content with running a large retail empire, Spedan was a keen naturalist and avid chess player. He believed that chess improved planning skills and often interviewed candidates whilst getting them to play a game with him, to see if they were the right calibre of employee. He set up the National Chess Centre in 1939 in his Oxford Street store, but both the club and store were destroyed in the blitz during the World War II.

Fun Fact - What connection do chess and John Lewis have with the famous codebreakers at Bletchley Park?


Charismatic Cambridge graduate and chess champion, Hugh O'Donel Alexander CMG CBE (19 April 1909 – 15 February 1974), was employed as John Lewis Partnership's Director of Research in 1938. In 1940 he was recruited, due to the outbreak of the Second World War, to lead a team of codebreakers in Hut 8, including Alan Turing, who were ultimately successful in breaking the German Enigma code. After the War, he left John Lewis and worked at the British intelligence and security organisation GCHQ for 25 years. He was also twice British chess champion and was given the title of International Master. If you haven't visited Bletchley Park, I can highly recommend it. I visited for six hours and still had more to learn. And if you cannot make a trip there, then why not watch the terrific movie, The Imitation Game (2014), where he is portrayed by actor Matthew Goode.


In conclusion

This small but perfectly formed museum is interesting to those, like me, fascinated by industrial history and tourism.


The brand values are showcased and continue to be a driving force of the company. The archive and oral history resource, combined with the online Memory Store, creates opportunities for designers, historians and educators to draw inspiration for future activities and projects. It also provides a perfect resource for reminiscence therapy.


As there are so few department store museums in the world, this is a small but important visitor centre that plays an important role in the brand's past and future.


I might not suggest you make a long trip to see it, but if you're in the area it is well worth checking out.


How long was the visit?

I was there for an hour and I had seen everything, taking photos of artifacts and talking to the volunteers in the archive.


How much are tickets?

It was free and this was not part of any advertising.


Tour options

This is a self-guided experience though you can book in to see the archive.


If you want to see more of the Odney Club, then visitors that are not Partners, can visit the gardens, as they are open one day a year as part of the National Garden Scheme.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary, but the Heritage Centre is usually only open on Saturdays from 10am until 4pm.


 

Where we stayed:

We wanted some cost-effective and convenient accommodation for the night before we visited the Heritage Centre and looked for a suitably pretty town with some good places to eat. Marlow is on the River Thames, alongside the woodlands of the Chiltern Hills. It has an abundance of boutique shops, restaurants, cafes and bistros. You could dine at celebrity chef Tom Kerridge's The Hand & Flowers, the first gastropub to hold two Michelin stars, located on West Street, though it is quite pricey. There's enough to do for a wander around for an hour or so.

We stayed in a twin room (though we got 3 beds) at the Travelodge, Marlow which is a little away from the centre of town in an industrial estate, next door to a paid carpark (£3 for 24 hours) and a fabulous and extremely popular coffee roaster, Coopers Trading Company. We stopped by for brunch before heading to the Heritage Centre and can highly recommend it, even if, like us, you have to queue. The hotel was cheap and cheerful and good enough for one night only but we won't rush back. But we have told friends about the coffee roasters.

I can recommend the Shakshuka, as it was delicious with two eggs baked in Ras El Hanout spiced tomato & pepper sauce, served with toast with added chorizo.


Getting here:

We were on a 3 day long weekend trip from Scotland, flying in from Edinburgh to London Luton airport with EasyJet. Luton Airport is only 38 miles from the Heritage Centre.

From where we stayed in Marlow, the Heritage Centre was a short 13 minute drive. It is close to the M4 and M40 so you can arrive by car easily.


What else is there to see close by:

If you're into your food and in the area, why not try booking a table (well in advance) at the Fat Duck by experimental, superstar chef Heston Blumenthal in Bray, 9 miles from Marlow. It will be simply unique.


Cliveden Gardens, run by the National Trust, is only 7.5 miles from Marlow. A palatial 17th Century country house which is now a five AA Red Star award-winning hotel, it is surrounded by 376 acres of Grade I listed formal gardens and woodland.


Bicester Village outlet mall has more than 120 boutiques, including Coach, Dior, Ralph Lauren, Mulberry, Barbour and more and offers savings of up to 60% off. With a few restaurants and cafes, free parking and a dedicated mainline train station at the village, it's a shopper's delight and is always busy with tourists from near and far. It's 40 minutes by car from the John Lewis Heritage Centre and extremely easy to get to.


Just over ten miles from the Heritage Centre is Windsor and Windsor Castle. A residence of the British Royal Family and venue for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, visitors can tour the castle built by William The Conqueror in the 11th century, making it the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world.


Across the river from Windsor is Eton and the famous Eton College, the private boys’ school where a host of British politicians and actors such as Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Boris Johnson and David Cameron were educated. Eton has a historic high street and you can visit the College’s three fascinating museums.


The aforementioned Bletchley Park is just over an hour north from the John Lewis Heritage Centre by car.



Visited: March 2023

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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