One of our students, Iraida Petriashvili from Moscow, tells me that she wanted to buy an umbrella over the weekend, but couldn’t find one. Naturally, I asked her if she had tried John Lewis, and she said yes, that was the only shop she had tried. And I don’t know if I was more surprised that she couldn’t find an umbrella in John Lewis, or that I couldn’t think of any other shop in Cambridge she might have got one (although I suppose there must be many).
John Lewis is a bit of a fixture – a department store in a small town always is. It used to be called Robert Sayle, and was a sprawling ramshackle shop that had clearly been put together from many other shops over many years, but a few years ago it had a major renovation and refit, and re-emerged as the cornerstone of a new shopping arcade (called, I think , The Arcade) just opposite Emmanuel College.
Robert Sayle always was John Lewis – the John Lewis partnership is a group of department stores and supermarkets, some of which share the name and others of which do not (Peter Jones on Sloane Square in London, for instance, and Waitrose). The group has an unusual ownership structure: it is a full partnership belonging to all employees, who take a share of the profits each year in proportion to their status and longevity.
It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the staff care a great deal about their shop. I worked for John Lewis for a couple of months when I was 18 years old (at the store on Oxford Street in London, and not as a partner, of course). I remember that the staff were devoted to their shop (or at any rate to their bonuses), and that they addressed each other Partner (good morning Partner!), which I found a little bit cultish.
For many years John Lewis did not advertise but relied on word-of-mouth endorsements (again, a touch zealous, but refreshing in its way). They do advertise now, but they continue to use their original slogan never knowingly undersold – guaranteeing the lowest price on various objects within a certain geographical radius, a promise maintained in my day by the partners themselves, who would supplement their wages by noting prices in competitors’ stores in their off-hours.
I find it hard to believe that John Lewis does not stock umbrellas – if they do not, perhaps it is because they know there will be no more rain this summer. Let us hope for the best.