INTERVIEW: John Lewis

Christopher Dring
INTERVIEW: John Lewis

It may be one of Britain’s oldest and most reputable department stores, but John Lewis has been a poor games retailer.

Our Mystery Shopper has reviewed John Lewis three times in the past 12 months, awarding scores of 1/10, 2/10 and N/A. The latter happened just last month in Stratford, when a staff member told us that he wasn’t getting any stock of FIFA 12, so we should try GAME instead.

If John Lewis was a games developer, they would be out of business by now.

But don’t think for a second that the 32-strong retail chain doesn’t care. When MCV sat down with Robert Hennessy, the company’s new games buyer, he quoted all of our Mystery Shops back at us. And to kick off our interview, he’s desperate to address the aforementioned ‘FIFA incident.’

“There is some really fundamental things that if you are trying to attract gamers you need to do,” he admits. “I know there was a piece in your magazine last month about FIFA. And this are all the types of things we need to address.

“Your challenge was absolutely fair,” he continues. “I remember when the SNES came out, and Street Fighter II was announced as the Christmas title of that year. I can remember saving up £60, going without my student meals, going over to my local import shop to buy an American copy of Street Fighter II, and using an illegal cartridge adapter so that I could play it. That is the kind of mentality a gamer has around software launches. You have to have these mega titles there and then.

“FIFA is one of those mega titles, which you simply have to have at launch. We are changing our gaming model fundamentally.”

NEW PARTNERSHIPS

It would be easy to dismiss this as empty rhetoric if it wasn’t for the fact he was speaking at the launch of a new Nintendo Shop at John Lewis’ flagship Oxford Street store. A concept drawn up in collaboration with both the platform holder and Gem. It is retailer, publisher and distributor working together for mutual gain.

“Shortly after I took over, there was an opportunity for us to really revolutionise the way that we approach gaming,” adds Hennessy. 

“One of the elements of that was a stronger collaboration with some of the key brands – Nintendo, Xbox and Sony and so on. And also broadening the way we interact with gaming, we didn’t really have a relationship with the software houses before. So we are now meeting quarterly with all of the big guys to try and do something a bit more joined-up.”

THE PRE-ORDER PLAN

It’s not all about relationships and stocking the latest games, either. The firm’s new relationship with Gem means John Lewis can now offer pre-orders for upcoming products, as well as a range of bundle options (put together by Gem’s Creative team).

Hennessy adds: “The systems and procedures we have had in place in this business has made it particularly difficult to do pre-order up until this point. But we have now got that, for both in-store and the John Lewis website.

“It is my aspiration that, within the next three to six months, we will be offering all of the key software titles – in advance of launch through pre-order and also on the day of launch. And that will include FIFA.

“Also, we previously offered a very limited range of bundles. Customers are now driven by the kind of dealw they can get, particularly when they are buying consoles. So it’s about ‘What games do I get, what accessories do I get, what saving do I make.’ We have now addressed that via our partnership with Gem.”

FAMILY PLANNING

The Nintendo Shop on Oxford Street isn’t just a statement of intent from John Lewis, it also represents the retailer’s new video game direction. The department store has always been about the family, and now that will be reflected in the chain’s games offering. We’re talking Mario Kart here, not Dark Souls.

“We offer something unique in John Lewis in the way we engage with the family unit,” adds Hennessy. “We can offer something to the industry, which is less about traditional gamers – single guy, sat in front of a screen, shooting somebody over the internet, and more about the family.

“The challenges in the marketplace, has made it very difficult for John Lewis to carve our a niche for itself,” admits Hennessy. “We have now established what that niche is, it is about family gaming. And now everything that we are going to do will be about reinforcing our credentials as a family gaming retailer. And there will be a whole load of things that we do, of which Nintendo at Oxford Street is one strand of.

“The launch of the Nintendo shop is the start of a number of other initiatives we have got coming down the pipeline, addressing how we engage with the family. We hope this will really signpost us as a different type of retailer in gaming. It might mean we choose not to engage in some of the rougher, 18-rated titles.”

NEXT GENERATION

It may seem a strange move to suddenly back games when the market is so low. But Hennessy is no fool. He knows this is the low point in the cycle. Whilst taking MCV around the new Nintendo department, he explains it is about being ready for the next generation – he references Vita and Wii U.

After seeing the new Nintendo Shop, we visited John Lewis’ other games section in its technology department. It still looked sparse and uncoordinated. There’s still plenty of work to do.

But Hennessy promises to fix this. He tells MCV that they are already training staff so they can better serve customers – something that was a major criticism of our Mystery Shops.And he doesn’t rule out the idea of other specialist shops in the future. He says there are some 30 stores that could “potentially house something similar” to the Nintendo shop.

One year ago we reviewed John Lewis’ Oxford Street store. We gave it a 1/10 and wrote that we “walked down five flights of stairs disappointed by the experience.” If we were to re-review it today, that would read differently. For starters we only had to walk down four flights of stairs. And feeling far more optimistic.

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Tags: Retail , interview , john lewis , robert hennessy

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