OPINION: Marketing Society - Get the offering right then think about marketing

Everyone seems to want to own a department store these days, with Debenhams the latest in a string of takeovers that has also seen Allders and Selfridges change hands in the past year. For a sector which is traditionally written off every five years or so as an outmoded retail format, these are indeed enthralling times.

There are many reasons for this rush to own a department store, not the least being that they are a powerful retail format. Although they are not well-suited to the City's desire for short-term performance, good returns can be made on department stores. But it is tougher to deliver steady earnings growth.

There is no doubt that change in the sector, and for John Lewis, was long overdue. A visit, say five years ago, to one of our older department stores (or to many of our competitors, for that matter) would not be a very different experience than a visit 15 years earlier. The store would have looked more or less the same and, although the product range was extensive, it was not particularly inviting. However, we knew the format worked and our new shops were great successes.

We needed to grow the business but we had a major issue. We could have increased marketing but we would have broken the fundamental marketing rule, namely that you must have the substance in the offer to support the message. But we were not in a position then to take a marketing-led approach to get customers back into our stores and to take on the competition.

Five years on, how things have changed. A £320m in-store investment programme; changes to the working practices and contracts of more than 20,000 John Lewis partners (which were voted for by elected employee councils); the development of online and direct channels that suit customer needs; the rebranding of our stores under the John Lewis name; and much more unseen work to improve the way we run the business have all contributed to the reinvigoration of John Lewis.

Don't get me wrong, John Lewis has always been a great business and a great brand. Our unique co-ownership structure helped us to stand out from the crowd. Our obsession with product range and quality, customer service, value and honesty - embodied in our tagline 'Never knowingly undersold' - has long created customer loyalty.

But we needed to ensure that the shopping experience supported our claims for the brand now. Four years ago we didn't accept credit cards in our stores - now we are in the process of launching our own.

With great brands come great responsibilities. There are always opportunities for using a brand like John Lewis to achieve short-term gain, but without investing in the substance behind the brand, any success will be short-lived. We have always taken the view that substance comes first, marketing second.

Department stores have a unique position in the heart of shoppers' homes.

The ability to develop a department store brand beyond the basic shop offer makes them doubly attractive. Perhaps this is why everyone wants one.

- Luke Mayhew will be a speaker at The Marketing Society Retail Forum on October 14.

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