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John Lewis, never knowingly underpaid? (except staff)

“Never knowingly undersold” Really?

John Lewis was once famous for the quality of its products, its impeccable customer service and its low prices, underwritten by the store’s promise to be “Never knowingly undersold”.

John Lewis store collection point in store

This week the BBC reported “John Lewis to pull ‘Never knowingly undersold’ pledge

It’s about time, given that the promise doesn’t cover online retailers at a time when there has been such an increase in online shopping.

Even if the company did move to honour this statement fully, it would be very difficult to administer, given that Amazon changes prices so often on nearly everything.

One has to wonder why it has taken John Lewis directors this long to realise that the pledge has been out of date for years. Consumer confidence in the brand has been diminishing over time and the pledge is now utterly meaningless to most consumers. It feels untrue to many.

And it’s not the first time John Lewis Partnership has dropped a promise. In 2018 Waitrose, the supermarket part of JLP, scaled back a pledge made in 2010 that it would price match Tesco, shrinking from 8,000 to just 1,200 products.

Sharon White, the new Chair, who started in February 2020, had already said that she expected the pledge to go. She’s paid £990,000 a year…

In 2019 John Lewis dropped the link to final salary in its pension scheme, hoping to save £80 million. It was thought that staff voted for this expecting an increased partnership bonus in March 2020. However, they actually received the lowest pay out since 1953, just a month after the new Chair started.

Perhaps staff aren’t now so loyal to a company that previously treated its staff so well? That in turn means not providing the extra service for which the company was formerly known.

Two lessons for John Lewis

There are two lessons to be learnt here:

1) Don’t keep a slogan for years after it has stopped being true


2) Leading staff to falsely believe that giving up one thing to get another will always backfire and cause them to mistrust future promises.

The overall message? Integrity. Staff and customers fall out of love with a company that isn’t honest in its dealings.

John Lewis has a long period of recovery ahead. But as an absolute priority it must start by regaining the trust of its staff and its customers as the first steps in turning its fortunes round.

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