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John Lewis's axing of ‘Never knowingly undersold’ shows retailers are rethinking their value

Brave new retail world

After almost a century, John Lewis has dropped its famous price promise ’Never knowingly undersold’. For Jo Arden, chief strategy officer at Publicis Poke, this decision and the way some retailers have weathered Covid-19 is a sure sign of a sector-wide shake-up.

John Lewis’s radical removal of ’Never knowingly undersold’ earlier this week (23 August) is perhaps the most visible sign of a sector-wide shake-up. Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has undeniably had a profound impact on how retail operates but it has also changed the relationship it has with the people it serves, both colleagues and customers.

John Lewis’s decision is likely the result of a number of factors but chief among them will be the commercial impossibility of a promise that was wholly designed for an offline world. With its online sales now reportedly at 70% of its totals sales, a price match which excludes other online retailers could quickly become a drain on the trust it has built over the decades. However, there is the promise of a replacement proposition which will be interesting to see.

For the vast majority of John Lewis shoppers, its brand is about way more than price. It is a values-driven business which, despite tough trading conditions in recent years, has maintained a model which has fairness at its heart. That focus on colleagues plays out in the consumer experience and, for those privileged enough to not have to make decisions solely on cost, that is where the value lies.

John Lewis is not the only retailer for whom Covid-19 has sharpened its view of how to add value. Boots, the health and beauty chain, already an invaluable part of the UK’s health system, introduced a whole raft of innovations. Along with all pharmacies Boots was designated as essential and permitted to stay open throughout lockdown, and swift changes to how stores operate allowed that to happen in the most part. From May it also opened its treatment rooms as safe spaces for victims of domestic violence, a beautifully simple and empathetic move amid one of the many dark consequences of lockdown. It was one of the many ways, along with the increased capacity for prescription delivery, that it brought tangibility to its purpose.

Grocery has seen radical change too. Without getting into the major changes that many have made to their supply chain, their infrastructure and their digital businesses, there has been a clear shift in what the brands themselves stand for in this new retail world. With the long-overdue recognition that retail workers are literally the only people that keep us fed when a crisis hits is a stark reminder too of the societal role our grocers play.

When our lives are stripped back to the basics, the grocers collectively and individually demonstrated humanity and pragmatism. As a sector, they introduced priority shopping for those we most needed to protect, speedy shopping lanes, one-way systems and rationing. At a brand level, we have seen a return to the values on which many were built. Morrisons in particular which has always been both champion and servant to the communities of which it is part has demonstrated that it takes its role of provider extremely seriously.

While no retailer is immune to the realities of the economy, the sector has shown that it can change with the times and, in many cases, take a leadership stance on some very tough issues. Across the board, retail brands have benefited from the incredible fortitude and resilience of people who work in that sector. And that strength of character, that will to serve and succeed shines through their brands at a time when it is certainly needed.

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