As readers know from the excellent article this week by Will Jones, the current Chairman of the John Lewis partnership, Dame Sharon White, will be stepping down. This makes her five-year term (by the time she leaves) the shortest in John Lewis’s history with her predecessors each serving between 13 and 26 years.
I sensed that all was not well when, in June, I purchased a mattress from its central London store. Today, five months later, I am still awaiting delivery and the story is every bit as telling as Tracy Emin’s iconic bed, shortlisted for the Tate Modern prize in 1998 – an emblem of Bridget Jones-style singlehood, with stained sheets in disarray, empty vodka bottles, cigarette packets and condoms on the ground.
So, why the delay in the delivery of the mattress?
A brief foray into the world of mattresses. The John Lewis mattress is available in two tensions, one regular and one firm and is displayed as part of a double mattress, with only the labels distinguishing the two tensions of ‘regular’ and ‘firm’. When I made a return visit to the store to affirm the correctness of my purchase (the mattress was far more expensive than previous ones I’d had but was intended to support a rickety back) it made sense to check the correctness of the labels. The shop floor was quick to assert that they were ‘correct’ but there was no attempt to check this with reference to the feel of the bed. So, I had no way of knowing if the labelling was correct or not.
One salesperson suggested that I visit another store that stocked the same mattress and so I travelled across London to check it out. It felt exactly the same as the other one and yet the labels were presented in the reverse order. I reported back to the first store and asked which of the two sets of labels were correct. I would say that asking this question was by no means easy since it is impossible to contact departments by telephone, and all contact is through a call centre in Tunisia. I had explained the story five times to the person at the other end of the phone but gave up when I realised that the issues were conceptually or linguistically (I don’t know which) beyond her comprehension.
It was chance that led the salesperson from the shop floor to phone me so that I could communicate the discrepancy in labelling between the two beds. I said that I hoped an investigation could be made to sort out which was correct. When the weeks rolled by, I reached out to the manufacturer who eventually sent experts out to the two stores, confirming that there was a labelling error in one. This conclusion left the door open to my arranging a date for the delivery of the long-awaited mattress, all done by email with the team leader of the beds department.
On the appointed day, handyman by my side (to move out the old mattress), I awaited the John Lewis van. It never turned up. Why? I later learned that the contents of my email had been opened by a colleague of the addressee who forgot to reveal its contents to the team leader.
This degree of chaos is unusual and so I was interested when a friendly Customer Services operative did not answer my question: “Is leadership at John Lewis good?” I was intrigued when a salesman in the central London branch told me that even the call centre operative earned more than he did. And my worst suspicions were confirmed when the handyman told me that a former John Lewis manager in my road had told him that things in the group were “the pits”.
The rest is history. In 2022, the John Lewis Partnership suffered a loss of £234m and in March this year it scrapped the annual staff bonus for the second time in three years. Dame Sharon blamed inflation and the shift towards online shopping but a competitor, Marks and Spencer, bounced back with results beyond expectations in May this year.
It seems that the current Chairman made the fatal mistake committed by M&S CEO Sir Richard Greenbury in the late 1990s when he encouraged the departure of experienced staff in order, so he thought, to boost profits. Yes, these reached a peak of £1 billion in 1998 but nose-dived in 2001 to £0.14 billion. Dame Sharon made a commitment to customer service but with a background in economics, she may not have realised that delivering a premium product depends on the loyalty and skill of staff.
There are lessons to be learned and maybe the mattress at John Lewis could be a contender for the next Tate Modern prize. Its title? Perhaps: ‘The power to think beyond the label.’ All suggestions on a postcard please.
Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD is an experienced HR professional who has served as Head of Training in a number of blue chip companies and as a Professor of Management and Marketing. She is the author of around 80 peer-reviewed journal and conference papers and her eight books include Inclusive Leadership. She can be contacted by email.