Ipswich: Futura Park brings Waitrose and John Lewis at home closer together

Waitrose manager Paul Reeley and John Lewis at home manager Anna Moir outside of the Ipswich stores

Waitrose manager Paul Reeley and John Lewis at home manager Anna Moir outside of the Ipswich stores - Credit: Archant

ANNA Moir and Paul Reeley are branch managers of the John Lewis at home and Waitrose stores at the John Lewis Partnership site at Futura Park, Nacton, near Ipswich. SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to them about establishing a new business in the middle of an economic downturn

THE rise and rise of the John Lewis Partnership almost defies economic gravity.

We are living in recessionary times, and yet the employee-owned retail giant continues to post results which indicate a business still on the up.

On November 8, it opened a bright, new flagship retail centre on the site of the old Crane engineering works at the new Futura Park at Nacton in Ipswich, and thus created a retail outlet which is serving as a beacon in bleak times.

A small Waitrose grocery launched in Ipswich town centre had already proved there was pent-up demand for its products in Ipswich.

The eagerly-anticipated much larger joint venture, containing a Waitrose store, a John Lewis at home store stocking household items and a shared café, was the first of its kind for the partnership, and is set to provide a template for future partnership stores.

It was an instant hit. As soon as it opened, it was overrun with shoppers keen to see the new stores and stock up for Christmas.

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The remarkable success of the John Lewis brand, and its new Ipswich stores, may in part be down to its unique business model, which appears to speak to ordinary consumers feeling out of sorts with an “economy of greed” which has seen banks toppled, countries brought to their knees and executives walking away with sizeable pay-offs since the financial meltdown of 2008.

Unlike these enterprises, all John Lewis workers, including the 350 new staff at Nacton, are partners in the business, sharing in its profits. Of these, 125 are employed by John Lewis and 234 by Waitrose. They can earn healthy annual bonuses if the sales figures, announced in March, merit a shareout.

This year, they received bonuses worth 17% of their salaries, an announcement greeted with cheers from staff at the Futura Park stores who gathered in March to hear what they were in line for. The payout even compared favourably with last year’s already sizeable 14% bonus.

It meant its 84,700 employees across the country received the equivalent of nearly nine weeks’ pay in bonuses this year.

The total bonus pot of £211million followed a 15.8% surge in annual profits, which reached nearly £410m for the 12 months to January 26. No wonder then that the Nacton store was overwhelmed with job applicants.

The stores also benefit from a light and airy retail space, which has proved a magnet for meet-ups and for longer-distance shoppers. The design is simple, clever and carries the distinctive, tasteful style of the John Lewis brand. The aim of the managers is to create a customer experience which is spot-on, and there are small touches, such as carnations adorning the café tables, which are aimed at setting the complex apart from the mainstream.

Since opening the Nacton stores, its managers have reported an “electric” atmosphere, as shoppers from as far afield as Norfolk and Essex flock to Nacton to check out what’s on offer.

“It would be fair to say we are both comfortably exceeding our financial targets,” says Paul Reeley, branch manager at the Waitrose store.

“Waitrose are performing particularly well with our meat traceability. Customers are very confident with the products they are buying from us, which is fantastic. It’s the first time we have come together and it’s a one stop destination. We are certainly feeding off each other.”

Traceability has always been “a big thing” with Waitrose, and other than New Zealand lamb bought when it is out of season, produce is by and large British, he explains. This emphasis on quality and rigour within the supply chain meant that it was left untouched by the recent horsemeat-in-processed-foods scandal which has given some other UK retail chains a rough ride.

“Because for so many years we have talked about the traceability of our product our customers are very confident about what they are buying. It’s a confidence thing. It’s the same for an electrical item from John Lewis,” says Paul.

“That’s just confidence in the brand,” adds Anna Moir, branch manager of the John Lewis at home branch. “We had huge curiosity but trade has continued to be absolutely buoyant. I don’t think it was luck really.

I think people were interested in seeing the two brands together.”

Anna believes the sense of security that customers feel about their purchases is underlined by strong after-sales support.

“It’s not just about the point of sale contact; it’s the life-long contact to ensure all elements of the lifetime of the product,” she says.

Its “never knowingly undersold” ethos has also helped as the retailer balances its “quality” brand against the need to meet the price expectations of cash-strapped post-credit crunch shoppers.

The two stores also work together to keep shoppers happy. Over the Christmas period, they aligned opening hours in order to offer as much customer convenience as possible and parking marshals were brought in to ensure a smooth flow of traffic.

“We had marshals from opening through to the New Year. It’s a strategy we would employ again. Customers love that. From the minute they step out of their car we have had really good feedback,” says Anna.

Even though the joint store was the first of its kind, there were few snags, and progress has been “really smooth”, says Paul.

“If anything, we have seen more opportunities in terms of cross-collaboration, marketing, community, working together which will all be defined as we continue to grow,” says Anna.

The John Lewis is Futura Park’s anchor tenant, and developers AquiGen believe the brand has proved a magnet for other businesses and jobs.

It will soon be joined by a collection of smaller retail units for DFS, Paul Simon Curtains, Furniture Village, Oak Furniture Land, Costa Coffee and Carphone Warehouse. This second phase of the Futura Park development, due to be launched this summer, will open up yet more potential opportunities.

“What’s particularly exciting for us is we are the very first unit on what’s going to be a very big retail and business park. Now, of course, come the summer when other units start to open, the vibrancy will start to increase and continue to increase,” says Paul.

“We are really, really excited about the summer and other retailers coming on site. We are told there should start to be some opening late summer. It’s another reason for people to come to the area,” adds Anna.

John Lewis’s investment in Ipswich has been “pretty significant”, says Paul, and now the retailer has plans to take its Nacton model forward in various formats to other parts of the UK.

“The business recognises that the collaboration between the two businesses together has worked really, really well,” he says.

One of the fears when the plans for the John Lewis store were first mooted was that it could hit Ipswich’s struggling town centre, but Anna and Paul believe it will have the opposite effect.

“I’m doing more deliveries to Norwich than I ever anticipated. That’s bringing more people into Ipswich than ever before,” says Anna.

“We have always seen ourselves as making Ipswich and Suffolk a retail destination. It was about bringing footfall to the area.”

Paul adds: “We took a deliberate stance not to market in the town centre because we didn’t want people to think we were taking people out of the town centre. We know we are dragging people in from further afield.”

Anna and Paul were planning the November launch three or four months before opening, while running Waitrose stores in Saxmundham and Colchester respectively. Paul has been 37 years with the business, while Anna, who previously worked for House of Fraser and Selfridges, is a relative newcomer with four years under her belt. It has been a lot of hard work, they admit, but well worth it.

“We are only just really at the foothills in terms of how we can work together as a business,” says Paul.

So far, it has been “an enjoyable rollercoaster”, says Anna, and the business has not lost anyone who joined up without a job.

“It makes you very, very proud of the John Lewis brand,” she says.

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