INTERVIEW: Leicester's new John Lewis boss says city store has 'wow' factor
Cliff Vanstone had never set foot in Leicester until a “momentous” career opportunity came his way.
The chance to run the city’s John Lewis store was what Cliff had been working towards, 20 years after he started as a sales assistant with the company.
So a visit to Leicester was in order and, after getting lost on the ring road, his future workplace with its towering glass facade made quite an impression on him when it finally appeared.
“I came around the corner and saw this big glittering building and my first thought was ‘wow’,” said Cliff.
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“I found it pretty impressive.”
The 40-year-old has been in the post of managing director for a couple of months since taking over from his predecessor, Amanda Dammers, who transferred to John Lewis in Nottingham.
“When Amanda handed over to me she said, ‘it’s all yours now, enjoy it’ – it was quite a momentous moment.
“I had spent all those years working towards it,” he said.
Cliff had only been general manager of John Lewis in Cribbs Causeway, Bristol, for 18 months when he went for the Leicester job.
His started out at the branch in Kingston, on the outskirts of London, where he stayed for 19 years – first as sales assistant, working in every department, from china to ladies wear and fitted kitchens.
He worked his way through management tiers and had a stint at the Peter Jones store in Chelsea, owned by John Lewis, before the Bristol job.
Cliff knew he wanted to get on to the John Lewis management ladder straight away.
“I come from a family of retailers – from a very young age I had been interested in retailing,” he said.
“My father had worked for a department store and I had spent some time at work with him.”
John Lewis in Leicester, which employs more than 400 people, is five years old this year – it opened just as the economic downturn hit, with Amanda at the helm.
Cliff said: “It’s still such a young branch, but the team have a shop to be proud of. It opened when the recession hit and all things considered the branch has done well to achieve what it has.
“My focus is to maintain that but we have to give customers a reason to shop at John Lewis.
“We have even more of a focus now on customer service and making it an environment that is second to none.”
The store has had it most successful Christmas to date, with sales up by 4.3 per cent in the last full week before Christmas, compared to the previous year. Cliff said the performance over the festive period had been a “record year” for the shop.
Online sales, including a home delivery and “click and collect” from store have rocketed by 40 per cent this year within Leicestershire.
Online accounts for 20 per cent of the business and Cliff is confident the branch and online sides of it can co-exist happily.
“Our vision is that online will increase to 40 per cent”, he said.
“Online sales are not harming our branch sales, shops are still at the heart of what we do.
“Customers still like to come in and research and browse.
“We have good growth in both areas but we will always need a shop.
“People’s shopping habits have changed so much – a few years ago who would have thought people would be sitting with a laptop actually shopping on Christmas Day?
“Twelve years ago, we didn’t have an online business to speak of – now, it’s huge.”
Since he took over the reins in Leicester, Cliff has moved into an apartment in the city, a stone’s throw from the store. He lives there during the week and spends weekends in Bath, where he has a home.
“I’ve seen a lot of the empty factories here, especially along the canal, and I’ve been really interested to read about Leicester’s history.
“You can see there is deprivation in parts of the city, which makes it a challenge, but then other areas outside Leicester are much more affluent.
Nationally, John Lewis performed strongly at Christmas compared to Marks & Spencer, which experienced a sales slump.
What is Cliff’s outlook for this year? “We have gone into 2013 optimistically cautious – the economic conditions are not going to change dramatically and there is pressure on consumer spending.
“People are being more discerning about where they buy from and with the casualties on the high street if they are buying something like electricals they want the guarantee they can bring something back if they need to.”