Is John Lewis in decline because eco-conscious middle-class customers are buying less stuff?

John Lewis has been in the headlines after issuing a profits warning following disappointing Christmas sales. Many theories have been put forward but no one has suggested this could be an early impact of a change in consumption patterns driven by heightened environmental awareness. If I’m right, they could be the first of many. The bigger question is whether we should be concerned or celebrating this new approach to buying less stuff.

Values-driven approach

John Lewis has been lauded for years because of its values-driven approach to business. It prioritises fairness, is the largest employee-owned business in the country and is well respected for its approach to customer service. You might expect it, therefore, to be thriving in an era when customers are increasingly motivated by the ethics of a business. But profits are down (a lot), store closures are threatened and the boss has been moved on. 

What’s going wrong at John Lewis?

I’ve seen many theories for the difficulties at John Lewis and many of them have merit: 

  • Department stores make much less sense than they used to and many are struggling. 
  • Online retailers have hurt them hard. 
  • They have an ageing customer base. 
  • The ‘never knowingly undersold’ price promise is costing them more than it brings in. 
  • They didn’t adapt well to the shift to earlier (Black Friday driven) pre-Christmas shopping 
  • Their investment in a high profile Christmas tv campaign is well-liked, but does little to drive sales. 

I’d throw in one of my own: their decision to rebrand as “John Lewis & Partners” was a ludicrous waste of money and effort. When did doubling the number of syllables in a well-known brand name last work out well for you?

But I’d like to focus on something else entirely: I think the John Lewis customers (or at least a significant proportion of them) have simply decided to buy less new stuff because of environmental concerns.  I reckon John Lewis are suffering first, because, ironically, they are victims of their success at attracting values-driven customers, but they certainly won’t be the last. 

The John Lewis customer: middle class; middle-aged; values-driven

Who are these customers? In my mind (and I know lots of them – I’m one myself), I’d say at the most simplistic level: middle class; middle-aged and values-driven rather than status-driven. And while we might assume the middle-aged (dare I say baby boomer) demographic is more responsible for causing the climate emergency than solving it, I’d say that is a misunderstanding. Younger groups might be shouting louder but there is evidence that older groups are more likely to make changes to their lives that result in reductions in their environmental impact (e.g. they are much more likely to recycle).

They’ve had enough (and they’ve got enough)

Here’s what I think is happening. The typical John Lewis customer, who shops there because of their values, has taken the climate emergency to heart. And their response is simply to acquire less new stuff. Why? Well, cynically, they probably have plenty of it already so it’s easier for them to do so. But they also remember that for most of their lives they just had much less and they probably didn’t suffer much, if at all, because of it. Many feel uncomfortable at the excesses of the past decade or so and yearn for a simpler time. They are hanging on to things for longer, patching stuff up and feeling good about it.

We are used to retailers doing badly when either there is an economic downturn or they fall out of favour. I think that’s what makes the John Lewis situation so interesting. I would argue that neither of these is the driver here: these customers are not hard up and John Lewis as a company is probably still very highly regarded by them. 

If I am right, however, there are likely consequences for others. If everyone starts buying fewer things, many more retailers will suffer. John Lewis customers might have made the change first, but others will follow. My 21-year-old daughter, for example, hasn’t bought any new clothes for a year because of her environmental concerns. She is probably right out there at the extreme and I suspect most her age are still buying clothes and throwing them away as soon as they’ve lost their lustre. But if this trend grows, amongst a more radically engaged age group, the impact on retailers will the enormous.

But should we be concerned… or delighted?

There is another, bigger question here: is this actually a bad development? Yes, it challenges everything we base our economy on: growth and the relentless drive to sell more and earn more. But when faced with a climate emergency, shouldn’t we be celebrating it? After all, John Lewis themselves make this comment on their website: “We’re committed to using natural resources as efficiently as possible and reducing our environmental impact”. If people are buying fewer things, then surely they are succeeding, albeit perhaps not in the way they imagined. 

Their response to this realisation, if my theory has any merit, will tell us a lot about how genuinely they hold those values.

Read more thoughts on the challenge of growth and what it should mean in a changing world

By Tony Harbron...

Tony Harbron of Growth Guides marketing, the Exeter based team helping founders and ambitious companies to scale up

Tony Harbron is a highly experienced strategist, innovator and marketing professional with time spent in both client and agency environments as well as in senior management (to listed company CEO level) and as an entrepreneur responsible for creating, building and selling a number of successful brands and businesses.

Tony was previously involved with numerous world-famous brands and organisations including Red Bull, the BBC, Ofcom, Lynx, Pot Noodle, Ministry of Sound, the FT, the Independent,, Virgin etc.

He is an innovation specialist and has run numerous workshops and seminars on creativity, new product development and idea generation.

His most recent venture saw him guide Lightfoot on their growth journey and he remains an investor in the company. Tony is an Oxford University graduate, an MBA, and a member of the Marketing and Market Research Societies.

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