As John Lewis and M&S battle for supremacy on the high streets of Britain, ALEXANDRA SHULMAN asks – Which is the REAL darling of the middle classes?
- Reports show M&S could overtake John Lewis as UK’s seventh largest retailer
- So Alexandra Shulman asks: which is the REAL darling of the middle classes?
Forget Shakespeare’s Montague and Capulet battling it out on the streets of Verona, or Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney’s mud-slinging in the Wagatha Christie saga.
The two heavyweights locked in highly charged rivalry today are British institutions Marks & Spencer and John Lewis.
While John Lewis has claimed the title ‘darling of the middle classes’ for decades, new reports show that, since the pandemic, M&S has stealthily been gaining ground.
Now trade publication Retail Week predicts the store could overtake John Lewis Partnership (JLP) to become the nation’s seventh largest retailer by sales by 2026.
This week, in a sign that the struggle for supremacy is becoming increasingly fraught, the boss of JLP, Dame Sharon White, announced that the woman she hired to be head of John Lewis’s department stores, Pippa Wicks, had left abruptly after less than three years in the post.
While John Lewis has claimed the title ‘darling of the middle classes’ for decades, new reports show that, since the pandemic, M&S has stealthily been gaining ground
Now trade publication Retail Week predicts the store could overtake John Lewis Partnership (JLP) to become the nation’s seventh largest retailer by sales by 2026
Analysts wondered whether it was the uninspiring entry-level Anyday range of clothes and furniture, or the unpopular scrapping of the store’s famous ‘Never knowingly undersold’ price pledge last year, that had done for Ms Wicks. Whatever the reason, it’s clear the brand is undergoing turmoil at the top.
I have long loved both John Lewis and M&S, and find my loyalties horribly divided as they scrap for the slimmer pickings on today’s High Street.
My aunt was a buyer for M&S and always instilled in us the terrific values of the company, while my American relations would always raid the store in the 1970s and 1980s for the well-priced cashmere which they stressed couldn’t be found anywhere in the States.
But Peter Jones in London’s Sloane Square, part of the JLP family, with its iconic spiral staircase, was my local department store as a child.
During my Vogue House years (I was editor-in-chief of British Vogue for 25 years), Oxford Street’s John Lewis became my go-to for everything. I loved it all, from the Waitrose food hall to the electronics department. And let’s not forget the haberdashery. The fabulous array of ribbons, cottons, shoulder pads, zips and wools provided the staples for the styling kits of the Vogue fashion team.
There’s no denying that John Lewis has benefited from a better shopping environment. But now that so many of its customers don’t go near the stores, preferring to let their fingers do the walking on keyboards to buy online, this advantage is less weighty than before.
So what do we expect from each? Well, high quality, keen pricing and merchandise that is popular and trend-aware, for a start.
We want them to be efficient and reliable — on hand to deliver our basics and a bit more. And we care about them. Both brands are like a member of our extended family.
I am a woman who has spent her life in and out of these stores. So in a blind test of fashion, homeware and food — where I judged each individual item pictured above after its label had been removed or covered up so I had no idea where it was from — I expected I’d know exactly which store was behind what, but I was in for a surprise…
STYLE HITS AND MISSES
When it comes to shopping for clothes, neither store has ever claimed my heart totally.
Occasionally, there’s been a star piece from M&S, such as the turquoise silky shirt we used on model Amber Valletta for a Vogue cover in 1996. It was a dead ringer for the satin version seen on Tom Ford’s catwalk and snapped up by Madonna. And recently I found a great pair of wide-legged check trousers, and caramel and cream slingbacks that look pure Prada.
At John Lewis, a few years back there was a big revamp of its own-brand ranges which brought a more highly styled feeling to the clothes. I love my cornflower trench bought during this patch, and I expected to find far more in John Lewis that I’d want to walk off with.
M&S, after all, has to contend with a broader demographic for its fashion, and I am often frustrated by the way they tweak pieces to ill effect. The colours are often just that bit too cheap-looking, the details too overwrought, and the choice way too broad. How many options do we really need when we’re looking for black trousers?
But I was genuinely surprised by how often M&S clothing nudged into the lead in this exercise.
The standout item was a black single-breasted crepe M&S blazer (£59). It had a flattering narrow shape. Online it looked nothing much, but the fabric was lovely and the unstructured shoulders made it work for smart and casual wear.
A John Lewis double-breasted wool blazer was more than double the price at £120, with structured shoulder pads and a shorter cut. Where the M&S jacket, although smart, felt relaxed, the John Lewis version was more staid.
Ditto with a red-and-white wrap dress. Despite being in a ditsy floral print we are now told is out of fashion, the M&S dress (£49.50), with its flamenco hem, was more exciting than the mumsy, empire-line style from John Lewis (£65).
When it came to cashmere sweaters, I was surprised by my reaction.
On the hanger, the John Lewis classic, slimmer-cut version (£79) looked more chic and was a less garish colour.
But when I tried on the boxy, almost sporty M&S sweater (£85), the fabric felt less clingy, and the shape was more flattering.
‘I was genuinely surprised by how often M&S clothing nudged into the lead in this exercise’. Stock image of M&S
Where both brands failed was in coloured trouser suits — a fashion must right now. A violent orange linen number from John Lewis (£114 in total) was crumpled before it came anywhere near my body. I’m not sure that shade does anyone many favours.
Over at M&S, a toxic lime green affair (£100 in total) with zip details on the trouser hem was no better.
Bright colours may be one of this year’s trends but they run the risk of looking cheap, as both of these did. Zara does it better. It was only when it came to accessories that John Lewis trumped M&S.
The £79 John Lewis leather tote was perfect — roomy, with a plain rectangular shape that folds in on itself to make a lovely trapeze shape often used by designer Phoebe Philo at Celine.
At first glance, the M&S version looked identical with a similar metallic clasp, but it was more expensive at £99, and less elegant. It was just that bit smaller and looked more High Street.
And John Lewis’s square-toe loafers (£59) were more delicate when it came to the detailing. The M&S version (£45) had its famous padded sole for comfort, but also a padded wedge at the back which ruined the streamlined look.
If M&S wants to beat John Lewis in accessories, too, it needs to focus on these subtle details which often let it down.
Most people would expect John Lewis to be the leader in this category, and indeed it was — by some margin.
The firm’s new director of home design, Charlotta Elgh, has a good base on which to build and probably needn’t fear M&S right now.
The store’s mid-century-style coffee table (£449) had individuality with a woven rope lower shelf, for example. In contrast, the M&S coffee table, though nearly £200 cheaper, was bland.
The John Lewis standard lamp (£125) with its brass pedestal and cylindrical shade was elegant and would work in any room, while the M&S wooden tripod lamp (£169) might work in a study but would look a bit cold in a sitting room.
M&S’s ‘wonky’ dinner plates (£24 for four) were the only piece that beat John Lewis on style. They wouldn’t look out of place in The Conran Shop.
But the dirty-white M&S sofa (from £799), despite looking like a good bet for binge-watching Netflix, was uncomfortable, with cushions that slipped all over the place.
I probably wouldn’t buy the John Lewis sofa (£799) either, as it was too severely structured to flop on, but it certainly looked chic and felt more substantial.
Although I was aware of M&S homeware, I have to admit I had never thought of shopping for it there — until now. I will certainly add it to my list of places to consider. However, in general the designs look unremarkable and are actually quite expensive. You might well be able to find similar versions in Ikea.
A John Lewis double-breasted wool blazer was more than double the price at £120, with structured shoulder pads and a shorter cut. Stock image of John & Lewis
FOOD TO DIE FOR
For years I have bought my food from both Waitrose (owned by JLP) and M&S and think both are excellent. I had expected to find all the samples delicious, but in reality neither came out as well as I’d hoped. In this blind test, I almost always preferred the M&S range — in both taste and appearance.
The M&S choux pastry and dark chocolate profiteroles (£4.75) were by far the most delicious, but I thought they were from Waitrose as they came on a smart rectangular tray. This was the area where my preconceptions played the greatest part — and where Waitrose needs to get its act together.
And why did both brands choose to call their near-identical caterpillar cakes near-identical names — Cecil and Colin?
Incidentally, the John Lewis Cecil (£8.25) was less lethally sugary by far, but why couldn’t they come up with their own tasty treat rather than copying M&S’s Colin (£8.50), right down to the green metallic platter the caterpillar resides on?
While both stores have some great food (and some pretty unimpressive), and in homeware M&S has a long way to go, womenswear for me is the key to winning the battle for the hearts and minds of Britain’s High Street shoppers.
So, on that basis, M&S clinches it. But for how long? Last year, John Lewis poached former M&S design director Queralt Ferrer, and she will no doubt realise that John Lewis’s own brands currently loiter rather unloved and limp on the shop floor and are in need of attention. So watch this space.
In the fight for the title of ‘the darling of the middle classes’, it’s all very much still to play for.
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