How my relationship with the John Lewis brand took a ding

As the UK’s most anticipated Christmas advert breaks all over social media, I’m sad to report that my great relationship with the John Lewis brand has taken a bit of a ding. For most of my life, John Lewis and Waitrose have stood out as beacons of excellence in both brand communications, business model, employee engagement and customer service.

Unfortunately on four occasions since I moved to West Sussex and visited the John Lewis Home store in Chichester, I have had a disappointing experience, and on a recent visit – a downright bad one. Normally poor customer service puts me in a bad mood for a very short period and I do one of two things: forget it or suggest my services to the perp! In the case of John Lewis – as a favourite brand – I’ve had to have a ponder the relationship question – is it me not you?

First let’s describe the three first experiences. I wanted to buy a bed and a mattress for the spare room in my new house. I go straight to the John Lewis website and find a bed that suits. It can’t be delivered for 10 days. So I pop into the actual store in Chi to see if there is any possibility they could deliver one faster. They couldn’t. I call Feather & Black, a local company who deliver a bed in 24 hours flat. Fair enough, John Lewis isn’t set up for speedy turnarounds.

I wanted to buy four chairs for my kitchen table. Onto the website once more and find the perfect chairs. They only have 3 not four in stock and same delivery issue. So I pop into the store again where they have four of the right colour and ask if I can buy them. It’s Friday. The answer was no, because if they sold me the chairs they wouldn’t be able to get replacements until the Tuesday. The rationale being that anyone coming in on Saturday or Sunday wouldn’t see a full set of chairs and might not buy. I bought chairs from a local antique store in Petworth who delivered them the same day. I went back in on the Monday and asked if they had sold any of the chairs. They hadn’t. I wanted to point out that they could have sold four, but it seemed a bit of a waste of effort.

I needed to buy a new Macbook Pro. I give John Lewis chance number three because I’m a brand loyal sort of person and good brands die hard. I wanted to understand whether I should buy a Macbook Pro or an Air and needed someone to explain the difference to me (I”m a bit of a dunce). It took me 10 minutes of loitering on the floor to find someone. He said there wasn’t anyone competent to answer the question in the department that day and sauntered off. I went into Chi to the local Apple reseller and bought a Macbook Pro with great help and fab customer service.

So far John Lewis has lost approximately £5k, but more importantly I’m starting to question the long standing loyal relationship I’ve had with the brand for 3 decades as my ‘go-to’ white goods and other things supplier and I’m sitting here writing a blogpost about it.

The fourth experience was truly mind-blowing. I wanted a couple of colourful cushions for a video shoot. Quick whizz into town, and stupidly go into John Lewis Home. Ask an assistant if a particular colour exists. The answer ‘no’. Just ‘no’. I ask if there might be some in stock. ‘No’ and said assistant walks away. I follow and politely ask whether she would mind checking, whereupon I was told as she propped up the cash register that she was on lunch break and I could find someone else to ask. I won’t bother completing the conversation which turned into an undignified shouting match (note to self – don’t rise) where I was told I couldn’t expect someone to give up their lunch break. Of course I don’t but as she was on the shop floor, it didn’t look like a lunch break.

So what’s happening here? Discounting the final experience where I’m going to show empathy and assume I caught the young woman on a day when something seriously bad had happened in her life, I call the rest sales apathy. John Lewis is so successful, it increases turnover and profit year-on-year, it doesn’t really have to worry about individual sales. It’s not poor customer service as we know it. It is about being too big to respond at speed.

It doesn’t have systems that allow for just-in-time or fast customer fulfilment because it has a warehousing system that can’t respond as fast as small retailers can. Nor does it’s financial model doesn’t allow for flexibility in product delivery. Because any form of deviation from the normal relationship between the customer isn’t in the operations manual and sales assistants aren’t motivated by commission, there’s really no motivation to go the extra mile and no framework to do something out of the ordinary.  Which is why we trust John Lewis of course.  Reliability, stays the same,  you know what you’re getting.  They are polite, but what you see is what you get – a very reliable service as long as you’re not in a hurry and don’t want speed.

I may be the only person in the world that wants to acquire a bed or dining chairs on the same or next day. Perhaps I am a poor planner when it comes to shopping. But it’s not something I want to waste a lot of time on which is what makes me a massive online shopper. Bish Bash Bosh and it’s done and on its way. As we all become more and more time poor, I find myself wondering how much longer major stores like John Lewis can continue with such slow turnaround and delivery times.

But I’m sitting here watching the Christmas commercial and going ahhhhh like all of you. Because like I say, good brands die hard. And in the end, I suppose it really was me.

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