John Lewis’s greatest challenge – the omni channel customer experience!

0 john lewis

It is difficult to find anyone who does not like John Lewis. It is difficult to find anyone who does not trust John Lewis. The UK department store with the distinctive green and white logo has been the undisputed retail King of customer satisfaction for many many years. In my 42nd year, I can still recall as though it were yesterday my mum telling me how great John Lewis are – regularly purchasing things with the confidence that if something was wrong, they would take it back without any problem. Founded in 1864, the chain is known for its policy of “Never Knowingly Undersold” which has been in use since 1925.

Many have put the success of John Lewis down to its Partnership model – a business that is owned and run by its staff has a unique culture. This no doubt has a very positive and significant effect on the way it’s people behave. The undoubted ‘trustworthiness’ of the brand is also a key factor. Additionally I would argue that it is the ability of John Lewis to deliver a consistent customer experience – a consistently good customer experience – that has seen it stand out from its competition. Being recognised as one of the best ‘customer experience’ brands in the UK is a hugely positive thing – but the challenge is to sustain that position. In 2014, I believe that John Lewis are facing head on in to their greatest ever challenge – the challenge that has already put paid to the fortunes of many retailers – the omni channel experience.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the term ‘omni channel’. The best definition I have come across is as follows:

“Technology, processes and systems integrated and aligned so that every channel behaves in the same way, to the point it makes it difficult to distinguish between them”

The bit I like about this definition is the second part – ‘to the point it makes it difficult to distinguish between them’ – the phrase omni channel has entered the business dictionary because we, the consumer, have put it there – unknowingly!. Derived from the word Omnis which can mean all or universal, omni channel is our perception of everything an organisation does. We expect to be able to interact with an organisation in any way we want – whether it be in store, online, via a mobile, or on the telephone. Not only that, we expect to be able to use all of those channels in  any one transaction. The issue for businesses is that the consumer does not see a business as a series of interaction channels. The consumer sees a business as ONE BUSINESS – and as such, they expect that when we use the channel of our choice, it connects to the same business and will result in the outcome we need and expect.

0 omni channel

Today, John Lewis’s channels are not integrated. Whilst the John Lewis online offer may look exactly the same as it’s in store offer, the two channels do not operate in the same way – and this is the greatest threat they have ever faced. At the moment, the Golding family are experiencing the problem first hand, and as usual, I would like to share our experience with you.

Two years ago we purchased some garden furniture from John Lewis – a table and six chairs. Naomi spotted the set in our local John Lewis store, and thought it would be perfect for our little garden. Whilst the table and chairs were spotted in person, we actually purchased them online as they were not available at the time in store. Last year we noticed that the table and four of the five chairs were starting to discolour. One of the chairs has still remained the pristine white it was on the day it arrived. The remainder of the set has completely rusted. Last weekend, we decided to go back to John Lewis to voice our disapproval – it is quite clear that there is an issue with the finish of the furniture.

The in store experience was good – despite us not having the receipt. Naomi was told that we should bring the table and chairs back – the assistant agreed that it was not acceptable. Naomi could not remember if we purchased the set online or in store, but she was told not to worry – bring them in. When she got home, Naomi checked back through our records. Eventually she found the online order – which confirmed the table and chairs were not purchased in store. Naomi contacted John Lewis online – by telephone – to check what we should do. The experience was very different.

Naomi was advised that she could NOT take the table back to the store as it was not purchased in store. The in store and online businesses are different she was told. Not only that, Naomi was advised that no one could help her (on the Saturday she called) – she would have to wait until Monday to talk to someone about the issue. If Naomi had taken the table in store, she was advised that they would have sent her back home with it. This is quite clearly a demonstration of a business that is not joined up. This is a demonstration of a lack of channel integration. Whether the table is legitimately ‘returnable’ is not the issue here. The issue is that we purchased a table from John Lewis. We want to return the table – what difference should it make how we choose to return it. We do not see John Lewis online being any different to the store – John Lewis is John Lewis.

As I write this blog post, the issue has not yet been resolved. I am sure that John Lewis will accept the return, and that we will either receive a refund, or be allowed to select a replacement (the rusted table and chairs is not available for sale any more). Yet despite this fact, the feeling we will be left with is one of frustration and inconvenience. I used to think that dealing with John Lewis was easy and hassle free. I always used to think that no matter what, John Lewis would sort a problem out for me. I used to think that John Lewis would do anything to put my interests first. These thoughts have been dashed. Whether their channels are integrated or not, surely they can allow customers to return a purchase made online to a store – without going through hoops?!

Earlier this year I chaired a retail customer experience conference. The conference was opened by an interview with Andy Street – the Managing Director of Jon Lewis. During the interview, Mr Street spoke of John Lewis’s omni channel challenges – he is an impressive, honest and open business leader – he said the following:

“Multi channel and omni channel are different – multi is disparate, omni is joined up. The rigour around delivery of process in the omni channel world is what drives the customer experience”

Andy Street recognises how important it is to deliver seamless omni channel experiences, and he knows that they have someway to go to achieve that ambition – I only hope we do not lose faith with the brand we ‘love to love’ in the meantime.


  1. greatproductmanagement April 29, 2014 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Excellent post, and a very clear demonstration of the difference between multi- and omni-channel.

    The challenge you’ve described is one which needs to be fixed quickly, as it is likely to characterise customer perceptions of retailers for a long time to come. Your childhood memory of John Lewis is shared by many, but a completely different experience will live in the memories of the next generation if they have to struggle with multi-channel behaviour.

    Sadly, many of the underlying systems and processes which have served these retailers so well in the past are likely to present their own restrictions and constraints concerning future solutions. And dealing with such legacy is usually costly, so it will take confidence and tremendous capability to fully commit to the right solution. Furthermore, cultural differences across the various channels cannot be overlooked if it is to be successful.

    • ijgolding April 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment – your kind words are very much appreciated. I also completely agree with you – I am very hopeful that Andy Street will invest in technology and where necessary people. I cannot say that I have the same confidence with other brands. The evolution will not go away – it will only intensify as consumers continue to get more demanding with higher expectations.

  2. K April 29, 2014 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    This is one of the most frustating and unfortunately a fairly regular experience that customers have. I had a very similar problem with a Sony outlet. The manager in my local Sony store asked me to drive 20 miles another the Sony store where my purchase was made since he was a franchise. I pointed out that Sony was Sony as far as I was concerened. After about 40 minutes and a lot of arguing, he agreed to look into the problem for me. It did take a threat to report him after I asked for the contact details of the Director with the remit for franchises at Sony HQ. That made him jump. But I shouldn’t have ever had to do that.
    When will businesses learn that customers see the brand, not the individual outlets? It’s infuriating. I haven’t bought a Sony product since.
    Imagine my annoyance when I found out that this particular manager had the franchises for both the stores in question anyway!
    If stores and businesses can recognise that sometimes taking the pain upon themselves to reduce the customer’s effort in rectifying a problem will have a positive impact on customer loyalty, both customer and company would be much happier.

    • ijgolding April 29, 2014 at 5:34 pm - Reply

      Lovely to hear from you – although not so lovely to hear your Sony story – that is awful. Ultimately, those behaviours and attitudes will have to change – the question is how long can businesses that treat consumers like that survive? Hopefully not very long!!

  3. […] Experience specialists out there. Recently in his blog he wrote a fantastic post – “John Lewis’s greatest challenge – the omni channel customer experience” – where he touches one of my […]

  4. mdowson May 1, 2014 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Thanks for this Ian – really interesting as I would TOTALLY have expected that John Lewis would have accepted that return if you turned up in store – and interesting to think that perhaps they would have if you had just turned up – but the disconnect in the call centre – is it one of policy or understanding of how the business works. I remember that John Lewis in the last few years centralised their call centre operations which used to be distributed and housed back-office in the stores… this closeness to the front end operations would likely have meant that they would know the ‘common practice’ in the store… perhaps the decision to centralise has made this harder…

    I, like you, have every faith that this is one of the organisations that will rise to the challenge.

    Thanks for sharing, again, your experiences and stimulating the debate!

  5. Tom May 1, 2014 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    I was really interested in this article so much so that I wanted to see for myself as I’m undertaking a project on John Lewis’s Omni-channel approach. I called up John and posed as a customer who wasn’t happen with a purchase I made on the website but I wanted to return in the item in store.

    The response I received was;

    “You have 3 options Sir

    1) You can take the product back to any John Lewis store
    2) You can post the product back to us
    3) We will come and pick the product up”

    I don’t know if I am missing something here but it seems that both John Lewis’ delivery and returns options make full use of their new integrated omni-channel approach.

    • ijgolding May 1, 2014 at 5:50 pm - Reply

      Hi Tom – many thanks for sharing this, Whilst they may be implementing this approach, our experience was not the same as yours. This suggests that it is not yet fully embedded. The sooner it is, the better! As I said in my post, I have no doubt they will, but they still have some way to go.

  6. Håkan Askengren (@frontreport) May 4, 2014 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    Thanks, I like the definition of omin channel you found.
    As an IT integrator I often find that the obstacles for creating streamlined customer experiences often lies within the mindset in the organisation. It´s much more of a cultural matter than an IT issue. Traditionally in IT, supporting the experiences in the customer journey pretty much translates into use cases and processes, the main goal to enhance the brand value in each occasion. The customer/user should not have to be bothered about which channel that is currently activated.

    As you put it, the customer sees just ONE business. Great post!

    • ijgolding May 6, 2014 at 9:39 am - Reply

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond Hakan!

  7. […] as a Customer Experience leader? In April last year I wrote a post that suggested the ‘omni channel Customer Experience’ is John Lewis’s greatest challenge of the moment. The story I shared demonstrated the risks […]

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