John Lewis must regain its ‘soul’ to survive, says Mary Portas

<span>Photograph: Bax Walker/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Bax Walker/Alamy

Mary Portas, one of Britain’s leading retail consultants, has said the John Lewis group faces a battle to regain its soul, amid its potential move to welcome outside ownership.

Portas, who advised David Cameron’s coalition government on the future of high streets, sent an open letter to the group’s chair, Sharon White, and Nish Kankiwala, who joins as the group’s first chief executive on Monday, urging them not to lose sight of its values and position as a British institution.

She referenced John Lewis and supermarket Waitrose’s recent financial woes and White’s attempt to shore up and rebuild the retailer.

“What’s worrying me is you might think your fight is purely financial. It’s not.

“The battle in hand is far more nuanced. It’s about what makes up the soul of your brand. The intangibles, the shared beliefs, the beautiful things that can’t be captured in financial projections but earn a little space in people’s hearts.

<span class="element-image__caption">Mary Portas sent an open letter to John Lewis warning that it has "let go of the soul". </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Yui Mok/PA</span>
Mary Portas sent an open letter to John Lewis warning that it has "let go of the soul". Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

“Somehow, in recent years, you’ve let go of the soul. We’ve all felt the subtle, but powerful, erasure of what John Lewis is, a severing of what’s always set your business apart.”

The retail group is owned 100% by its staff, but White is considering a plan to change its current ownership structure to raise between £1bn and £2bn of outside investment.

Related: How to solve a problem like John Lewis? Retail experts give their views

The company would only consider selling a minority stake – with emphasis given to retaining its employee ownership, where staff are known as “partners” and have a stake in the firm.

In its most recent financial results the group lost £234m. Sales fell by 3% at Waitrose with steadier sales at the department store arm offsetting the fall. White warned staff numbers would have to be cut, and apologised for scrapping its annual bonus for staff. The last time it was not paid was 1953.

Portas started her career in retail with a Saturday job at John Lewis and later became a board member at Harvey Nichols, leaving to start her own consultancy. She went on to front programmes on retail for the BBC and Channel 4, including Mary Queen of Shops.

She was commissioned by Cameron to write an independent review into the future of high streets in 2011.

In the letter, sent on Thursday, she also criticised Waitrose stopping deals for free newspapers with purchases over £10 and free coffee, a decision which store bosses reversed.

Related: ‘You’d come out feeling better’: shoppers on changes at John Lewis

“Your pledge ‘Never knowingly undersold’? Gone too. Really? At a time when good decent value and integrity could not be [more] important? Your new strapline ‘For all life’s moments’ isn’t a pledge. I’m not quite sure what it is,” she adds. The 62-year-old mentions Laura Ashley and Woolworths as British retail staples which have gone bust in the past two decades.

In a response to Portas’s letter, White said: “It’s the biggest privilege of my life to be custodian of the partnership. I am here to ensure that it not only survives, but thrives for generations.

“I love our brands. Their strength isn’t an accident of our being a partnership. It is because we are a partnership. Our partners who own the business are our greatest asset and our ownership of the partnership will remain,

“I will not rest until the partnership is restored to full health.”