When the chairperson of the John Lewis Partnership, Dame Sharon White, says she is turning the business into a “digital-first” operation, you know the retail landscape is about to change more profoundly and quickly than any of us thought likely at the beginning of this year.
John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets are so important to their physical surroundings that they affect house prices in the local areas and can make or break a shopping centre.
In mid-August John Lewis announced it would close eight department stores, putting 1,300 jobs at risk. Waitrose will close seven supermarkets this year.
Alex Monroe, Swarovski and Thomas Sabo are among dozens of jewellery brands stocked at John Lewis that will be directly affected by their store closures, but JLP’s digital-first strategy could turn out to be a long overdue recognition that the way people shop has changed forever.
The reality is that jewellery, particularly at the fashion end of the market, has been shifting online for years, but the sector remains one of the few that still clings to the hope that bricks and mortar will endure.
This is proving to be a false hope, and major multiples like Beaverbrooks, Goldsmiths and Signet’s Ernest Jones and H.Samuel are only now beginning to catch up with consumers who bolted online years’ ago, usually into the arms of Amazon.
In an interview with Professional Jeweller’s sister publication, WatchPro, Beaverbrooks managing director Anna Blackburn made clear that booming online sales not only helped to save the business from a deeper crisis during lock down, they are continuing to boom since stores reopened.
She need not worry that others might learn from Beaverbrooks’ success, because competitors are already at the same races.
At the luxury end of the market, David M Robinson and Laings announced in the past month that they have dramatically improved their digital offer with revamped ecommerce sites supported by active social media promotions.
This type of activity is expensive and complicated. In the recent past, retailers looked to contain the cost while enjoying some of the benefits. That strategy no longer stands. The money must be spent and the expertise must be acquired. It is now a matter of survival.
Retailers and jewellery brands must listen and learn from how your customers and competitors are behaving.
If that means next day delivery for online orders and a 30-day no quibble return policy, you must find a way.
If it means you have to shift investment out of physical stores and into digital marketing, you had better start today.
The current uncertainty is a massive challenge to every business, not least because money is in short supply for the sort of changes that are necessary.
But necessary they are and those that cannot find the money to invest in their futures will find the path to that future increasingly narrow and precarious.