The once pioneering American department store Sears declared bankruptcy in September 2018. For many, the news read as a report on yet another casualty inflicted by the rise of Amazon, as it gobbles up the dollars that once flooded to venerable department stores. But Sears’ problems were not just external, despite the obvious pressure that the all-selling Amazon is exerting across the retail sector. There was a core problem with its strategy, which had attempted to deal with its numerous issues in a fundamentally outdated manner: close loss-making stores, sell off real estate assets, and borrow more money from its chairman. That strategy was designed to mitigate its problems but it didn’t propose a way out of them for the long term, any way to compete; it just tried to stay afloat.
It’s easy to criticise. What is much harder, is taking John Lewis’ approach. The British partnership – owned entirely by its workers who divide the profits between them, a structure that has long ensured impressive customer service – is also a department store, with its foundations early in the 20th Century. Refreshingly, its attitude to the emergence of digital shopping channels has been one of embrace and understanding.