As with most department stores, there is a signpost inside the front door of the flagship John Lewis shop on London’s Oxford Street listing the sections to be found on each floor. I had been looking at it for barely 10 seconds when a woman in a smart trouser suit sidled up to ask if I needed directions.
Reassured that I hadn’t lost my way, the kindly older lady smiled and left me to it. At first I thought she was just a helpful bystander, but then I spotted her name badge as she glided away and realised she worked there.
Immediately, she walked up to another solo male shopper and repeated the process. Maybe that’s her job, I thought. Perhaps she roams around looking out for lone, bewildered blokes, whom she then gently shepherds to the safety of the menswear section lest they blithely wander into the badlands of beauty or lingerie.
I made for menswear at the back of the store. Within seconds of pausing to look at the shirts, another older staff member, a man with a measuring tape draped over his shoulders, asked if I needed help. I didn’t but thanked him for asking. A few minutes later I had been only briefly admiring the televisions upstairs when another older man with a name badge popped his head around the corner to startle me with an enthusiastic inquiry about my welfare.
It happened several more times. A pattern was emerging. Clearly, you must stay constantly moving in a John Lewis store if you don’t want to have to fend off well-meaning, eagle-eyed staff members with manic smiles. The corollary of this is that help is always available should you need it. They were being kind and that’s better than being ignored.
I thought of these encounters over the past 10 days while observing the national panic attack that Britain appears to be having following a report that the John Lewis Partnership might sell a slice of the company to investors to raise £2 billion (€2.3 billion). It may as well have been a suggestion that they privatise the crown jewels. In the post-Brexit age when the nation seems to be constantly wrestling with the contemporary definition of British values, there is broad agreement that John Lewis is the corporate equivalent of a national treasure, at least for Middle England. Be damned whoever messes with it.
Perhaps uniquely for a chain of shops, John Lewis is wholly owned by its staff. About 70 years ago the founder’s son, John Spedan Lewis, put it into a mutual trust late in his life. Maybe he did it to annoy the ghost of his father, with whom he had several rows. Or perhaps he was just an old softie. He famously justified it by saying it is “wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums”. So he gave it all away for the benefit of the workers.
It was a considerable bequest. John Lewis now has 34 large department stores and also owns the upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose, Britain’s equivalent of Superquinn, only posher. Waitrose has more than 330 shops, mainly around the well-to-do southeast. The whole lot has sales of £12 billion. Each employee owns a share and all get the same slice of the profits in proportion to wages. The company is run under the eye of a 60-member workers’ council. Like backbench MPs, they can call confidence votes in top management.
As anybody who has looked closely at a John Lewis or a Waitrose store recently can tell, the whole edifice is tired and run down. It is also losing money hand over fist in the internet age. Its chairman, Sharon White (in the company’s arcane culture she is the chairman and not the chairwoman), is now pondering breaking open the trust to pay for an overhaul.
Cue national horror. Former minister in a past Labour government, Gareth Thomas MP, wants to raise the issue in parliament. Newspapers, television and radio shows have seen a procession of commentators declare the company wants to sell part of its soul, nay Middle England’s soul. Andy Street, a powerful Tory mayor in the Birmingham region who used to run John Lewis, said it would be a “tragedy”. Retail guru Mary Portas, who has advised the government, wrote an open letter castigating White for messing with a British institution whose values stand steadfast “in this crooked, flinty world of ours”.
British society doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants on many topics at the moment. But one thing it agrees on is that John Lewis must never be changed. The staff, meanwhile, just want its performance to improve so they can pick up a share of the profits once again. That must be why they dive on you as soon as you set foot in the door.