The Sharp End: Festive fun in store?

Dave Waller sees the seasonal game-plan rolled out at John Lewis' flagship branch.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For me, there's nowhere more harrowing to work than Oxford Street during the Christmas rush. But as a raw recruit about to enter the fray, my spirits are buoyed by one thought: the state of the economy means the usual all-out assault may well be more like a phoney war.

Still, some are treating this year's preparations as a military operation. During my morning briefing with Stewart Dawson, personnel manager at John Lewis's flagship store, he talks tactics, reserve teams, following the action, staying in radio contact, with men abseiling 200ft to hang the baubles in the new atrium (part of last year's £60m refurb - codename: Project Beacon).

Stewart hands me over to Chris Hall, head of the furniture and Christmas stationery departments. We tour the shopfloor, eerily quiet at 10am. His shelves are decked with bells and holly, crackers and novelty Christmas trees, cuddly toys and armies of Santas. All that's missing are the insatiable hordes of shoppers. I can picture them clamouring for the store's much-talked-about pair of life-sized fibreglass reindeer. Price: £1,500 each.

Chris shows me a living-room display that caught the eye of a Saudi customer. 'I like that,' she told the salesman. Which part did she mean? 'All of it,' she said. 'Oh!' he replied, on the verge of a £17k sale, adding that he could arrange export. 'No need,' she told him, 'I'll just put it in the back of my plane.' Par for the course at this most prestigious of John Lewises. But why would anyone want a lounge in aubergine and olive?

John Lewis stocks 350,000 items, and for every customer spending a small fortune on furniture, many more are looking for a £1 button. Whatever they're buying, the clientele are all from the same mould: polite, middle-class and aspirational. It's all far less gruesome than I'd feared - there's no in-store radio, let alone a Christmas whisper of Jingle Bells. Just as I'm thinking I should have gone to Currys, I'm promised a shot at selling furniture. It's laughable: I couldn't sell snow boots to Eskimos.

John Lewis may be too classy for the hard sell, but there's still room for subtle wheeler-dealing. I shadow a polite and patient salesman who quickly demonstrates the method on a pair of refined old women. They splash a grand on a kitchen table, two chairs and a sofa. He lets me in on his secret: 'The first table I showed them was £195, but they bought one for £275.'

From there, I move to the ground floor to help with packing on the till banks. Facing queues of customers fills me with fear - as a student working at Asda, I avoided the call to the checkouts and hid in the warehouse, taking part in chilli-eating contests.

At 12.30 at John Lewis, that rush is still a trickle. They could manage this without my help. One customer hands over four shirts. With my cack-handed approach to folding, I recoil.

I lunch with store boss Noel Saunders, a livewire who reaffirms the partnership's flat structure by eating in the canteen with all the staff - sorry, fellow partners. He glows as he describes how last year the company's system of divvying up profit meant a 20% bonus for everyone. The founder and his ideals are discussed with reverence. It's like dining with a member of Barack Obama's campaign team.

When talks were under way about trading hours in London's new Westfield shopping centre, M&S said it would need two weeks' notice to make any changes. John Lewis requires at least three months - demonstrating, apparently, its enlightened approach to employee consultation. But maybe it's because every sentence is punctuated by 'Hi, Steve' or 'Hello, Jill' whenever a partner walks past. The human touch seems to work: half the people I meet have been here more than 25 years.

After lunch, I don apron and paper hat to join the team in the cheese room. It's hardly crowded, giving me space to absorb the wisdom of cheese specialist Max, who enlightens me on the origins of Brie, the production of Gouda, and what 'earthy flavour' means. A man with a white beard and hearing aid picks up some quince jelly. 'The Persian for quince is beh,' he says. Max makes a mental note. You don't get that at Currys.

By mid-afternoon, I'm hanging up my apron. The onslaught never came. Could it be that even John Lewis has succumbed to the recession? Chris assures me the frenzy will build soon enough. 'This is like the third round of the FA Cup,' he says. Hopefully, I'll be miles from Oxford Street come the final.

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