Behind the scenes at Nottingham's John Lewis: How the shop prepares for the sales
AS shoppers retreated to the suburbs on Christmas Eve the busiest place in Nottingham was John Lewis.
At the city's biggest shop the shutters rolled down at 5pm on the 2012 Christmas retail season. Cue the busiest hour in the Victoria Centre department store's calendar – 60 meticulously-choreographed minutes in which all four floors are prepared for the new year sale, starting tomorrow at 8am.
"We transform the place in an hour of non-stop activity," says the store's managing director Amanda Dammers. "However I have promised every partner that they will be out and on the way home at 6pm on Christmas Eve."
Partner? For those unused to the ways of John Lewis, the partners are not the sort of crumbly patriarchs of 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served? They are the very men and women who serve you at the company's 30 department stores, nine home stores and countless Waitrose supermarkets.
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As partners they take a share in profits so a bumper Christmas and new year shopping season will help them collect a respectable bonus in the spring.
Signs of a livelier Christmas than 2011's came on December 15th, when sales were up 11% on the equivalent Saturday last year.
Amanda Dammers is reluctant to put a definitive interpretation on the performance.
"It is still a challenging climate," she says, "and there are still constraints on customers. They are prepared to spend, but in a discerning way. They are looking for quality and for value for money."
There should be no shortage of both when the John Lewis sale opens at the store tomorrow (it has been running online since 5pm on December 24).
A peek at the firm's special buys leaflet points to bargains such as a six-piece John Lewis combed cotton towel bale for £20 (you could pay £20 elsewhere for a single bath sheet of the same quality) or a Hungarian goose down 10.5-tog double duvet for £130 (you would usually pay £180-ish).
A 58-piece Philadelphia stainless steel cutlery set? A UK website currently has it at £140, quoting a recommended retail price of £369. The John Lewis clearance price will be £99.
Behind the scenes these and countless other items were carefully loaded on trolleys and wheeled cages ahead of the Christmas Eve closure.
As the last customers were waved out of the 150,000 sq ft store, the Nottingham workforce – some of the near-700 partners plus elements of a 130-strong Christmas casual team – began executing the pre-sale operation.
"You would have seen a procession of cages coming out of the stock room, all going on a one-way system at a brisk – but safe – pace," explains Amanda. "It's a hive of non-stop activity conducted with military precision."
The biggest change-over concerned the dismantling of the "Christmas Shop" – nobody wants tinsel, baubles and holly wrapping paper on December 27 – and the creation in the same space of the linen clearance display.
At 6pm on Christmas Eve the partners set off for two days with their families – in Amanda's case there are two children to look after – to be followed tomorrow by an early start.
Shoppers will have been queuing since the early hours for cut-price Dyson vacuum cleaners or Portmeirion Serendipity tableware. If previous years are anything to go by, those at the front of the queue will commando-roll under the rising shutters to ensure they don't miss out.
These are a sophisticated breed of shopper, many being as adept at buying online or with their mobile phone as hunting a jumper in store.
"In 2012 we have seen more 'cross-channel' shopping," says Amanda, "with people coming into the store to look around and then buying online later, or with people researching online at home and coming in with their tablets and telling us what they want.
"In this quarter 30 per cent of online transactions have been on mobile phone – but there is definitely a place for shops on the high street and I don't mind people coming in just to browse."
Although it is her first Christmas at John Lewis Nottingham, Amanda Dammers is no stranger to sales fever.
As a graduate trainee she joined the partnership at its Peterborough store before touring the John Lewis network with each promotion. Her first managing directorship was at the Cambridge store and then she was in charge at Leicester before moving to Nottingham.
"The first day of the sale is one of the best days of the year," she says. "Everybody helps out on the floors and on the tills and there is a great buzz in the place. You go home exhausted but happy."
John Lewis clearance sale opens 8am on Thursday More details: www.johnlewis.com.