Ipswich: Whirlwind first year at Futura Park for Waitrose and John Lewis at home

John Lewis at home manager Anna Moir and Waitrose manager Paul Reeley are gearing up for Christmas.

John Lewis at home manager Anna Moir and Waitrose manager Paul Reeley are gearing up for Christmas. - Credit: Archant

On November 8 last year, John Lewis Partnership launched a new type of store combining its two retail arms – John Lewis at home and Waitrose – under one roof at a former industrial site at Futura Park, on the edge of Ipswich. As its first anniversary approaches, SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to its managers, Anna Moir and Paul Reeley, about its whirlwind first year.

Almost exactly one year ago, retail giant John Lewis Partnership launched a flagship project at Futura Park in Ipswich – its first joint Waitrose and John Lewis at home, complete with a café

The investment – at £12million – was sizeable, and the reaction from the shopping public was astounding.

On launch day on November 8 and all through the short run up to Christmas, the company had to employ car parking marshals to bring order as shoppers streamed into Nacton to get their first glimpse of the store.

The enthusiasm didn’t abate, and as the festive season approached, it was all hands to the deck inside the store as one tide of Christmas gift hunters was replaced by another.

Road works around the site were still being completed, and a second road, to be named Crane Boulevard, had yet to be opened. Phase Two of the scheme for the site – another retail building containing six retail units focused around furniture retail was not yet built, so beyond the shining oasis of the new John Lewis building and its car park, the site was still a busy hive of mud and builders.

It was a remarkable launch. A wide sweep of customers travelled from as far as Norfolk, Essex and beyond to view the new retail phenomenon for themselves. It was a dream start, and justified the drive to get the store open in time for Christmas so that it could take advantage of the annual festive shopping bonanza. AquiGen, which had taken on ownership of the old Crane engineering works after seeing its potential, could not have been more delighted, and neither could John Lewis Partnership.

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Consumers were keen to get their first look at the new complex, and to sample the town’s first John Lewis store. The mixture of housewares and groceries sold under the trusted John Lewis Partnership brand was proving a big draw. The café was an instant hit, and pressed all the right buttons with shoppers, turning the site into that most elusive and sought-after retail phenomenon – a destination shopping experience.

Paul Reeley and Anna Moir, managers at the Waitrose and John Lewis stores respectively, were in at the start, preparing the shops for the big launch day, and can recall vividly the sense of excitement.

“It’s just flown by, It just doesn’t seem possible it’s 12 months,” says Paul.

Earlier this year, Crane Boulevard, the second road into the site, was opened, and the summer brought an added sales boost with the completion of phase two, the next door retail complex, with DFS, Furniture Village, Paul Simon, Oak Furnitureland, Carphone Warehouse and Costa Coffee, taking up residence.

“Because we are very busy in our own units there’s constant opportunity and challenge,” says Anna. “It’s been a really exciting year.”

John Lewis at home is taking on 25 Christmas temps, while Waitrose is throwing open its extra shifts to its part-time staff to give them the opportunity to boost their pay packets.

Between them the stores already employ about 367 staff, giving a lift to the local economy. These are referred to as “partners” as they share in John Lewis Partnership’s success. Anna and Paul have enjoyed bringing many staff who are new to the chain’s employee benefits into the fold, the majority of whom were new to the business.

The partnership’s unique co-owned business model means that each year, in March, its profits are distributed to its employees rather than shareholders in the form of a partnership bonus, which is calculated as a percentage of their pay.

Last year, as the staff at the stores in Ipswich learnt they would be receiving bonuses worth 17% of their salaries, cheers rang out at the Futura site.

The John Lewis Partnership’s 84,700 employees across the country received the equivalent of nearly nine week’ pay after the chain increased its total bonus pot to £210.8m by posting a 15.8% surge in annual profits. Across the country, the stores have enjoyed a remarkable run of success, especially given the chilling effects of the post-Credit Crunch era on the retail sector in general.

On top of this, the group has been delighted with the Nacton stores’ performance in their first year, against the backdrop of a challenging retail environment.

Being next to each other has increased footfall, and John Lewis at home found it performed better than its sister stores at key times, for example, at Easter, simply because of its proximity to Waitrose, which would naturally see a boost around festive holidays. The benefits work both ways, and Waitrose has similarly found its footfall up due to factors at play in the John Lewis at home store.

“We have seen a really positive effect on our sales during Anna’s Christmas clearance,” says Paul. “Our sales remained fairly strong after Christmas because of the clearance and again through the summer we saw a significant increase during her clearance period. It’s a perfect match really.”

An added bonus has been the arrival of the furniture shops at Futura which has meant yet more cross-over, and weekends which are significantly busier than they were.

“What we have also seen is a step change since the new units arrived over the road, Saturdays and Sundays particularly,” says Paul. “For me, if a shopper is shopping for homewares they want to see a breadth of choice and a breadth of service.”

There are fluctuations in trade – inclement weather certainly draws out more shoppers looking for something to do, while during this year’s glorious summer, householders were more inclined to gather around the barbecue or head for the seaside.

“There’s no two ways about it, it is weather dependent and we have done extremely well because of the autumnal weather,” says Paul.

In response to customer feedback, the stores have adapted their offer, and the John Lewis store now offers haberdashery.

“We had a lot of customers looking for a traditional haberdashery offer so we have brought in a basic range around craft needlework,” says Anne.

The store has also streamlined its furniture proposition to enable customers to see a range of three piece suites and the 400 different fabrics which customers can choose to upholster them in. It’s a new format for John Lewis, and the Nacton store has been one of the first to introduce it.

Head office is “delighted” at how the Futura Park stores have performed.

“There’s a second one of these stores planned for Basingstoke now and it’s very much based on this branch and the learnings from our branch,” says Paul. “The café we are sitting in now is one of the best in the whole of the Waitrose estate. We are now starting work to have a second counter put in which will enable us to get customers through a lot quicker and extra tables and chairs to increase covers.”

The café’s performance is second only to one at Canary Wharf in London and its success doesn’t stop there. The demand was such that the stores decided to introduce a pop-up cafe downstairs to complement the offer upstairs. The Waitrose store’s dot.com operation has also been a major success, and is the fastest growing in the Waitrose estate, says Paul. Meanwhile, the John Lewis at home “click and collect” option deals with between 500 to 700 parcels a week.

“Our peak week was 1,300 parcels and I absolutely expect to exceed that this year,” says Anna. “That was week 46, the week prior to Christmas.”

Studies show that about 40% of customers will visit the two stores and the café as part of their regular routine and Paul and Anna are keen to increase that proportion.

Work will start on the café improvements in the middle part of this month, and should be finished by the last week in November. The pair are expecting a Christmas rush, and already have plans to bring back the car parking marshals, which received such a positive response from customers last year, in the run-up to the festive holidays.

“Technology is going to be massively strong. There’s a rumour iPad will be launching a new product before Christmas,” says Anna. “And I hear rumour that Furbies are going to be big this year.”

Next door at Waitrose, the Heston range has been a long-running success story for the chain, since it was launched in 2009 and Paul predicts that will continue.

Despite the tough trading conditions, the pair are optimistic for the coming year, and confidently expect to beat last year’s Christmas sales figures.

“I personally think that the housing economy is having a bit of a resurgence, which is definitely supporting the homewares,” says Anna. “Customers shop with a brand they trust in times like this.”