Goodbye John Lewis – Birmingham - from central business districts to edge city business districts

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The implication is that functions that were located in the centre of the city are now being flipped towards the edge as our cities are being turning inside out.”


Yesterday was another sad day for the future of the retail sector in Birmingham as John Lewis announced that its full-size department store in Birmingham would close. John Lewis is also closing the Watford department store, home shops in Croydon, Newbury, Swindon and Tamworth; and two travel hub shops at Heathrow and St Pancras. These planned closures place 1,300 jobs at risk. There are three things to consider here.

First, is that the planned managed retreat that John Lewis has instigated is an indirect reaction to Covid-19 but is a direct rection to the on-going restructuring that the retail industry has been experiencing over the last decade. The future of retail is one in which the on-line store becomes more important than high street stores. Covid-19 provides John Lewis with an opportunity to restructure, but this restructuring is a response to the continued decline of high street retailing. I would suspect that John Lewis will have to close other stores and continue to invest in its online retail experience. The future for John Lewis is e-commerce.

Second, the recent history of John Lewis is surprising. It began opening new stores rather than focusing investment, and management time, on its flagship stores and on its on-line presence. One could argue that John Lewis had begun to believe that every major city required a John Lewis. This has proved not to be the case as consumers mix and match between different retail channels. I had reservations about the design or evolution of the approach adopted by John Lewis to store design. I used to enjoy shopping at Robert Sayle, Cambridge before it was rebranded as John Lewis and before the old store was replaced by a modern shopping mall. The old Robert Sayle had charm. A visit was a voyage of discovery around a rather higgledy-piggledy store. The new store had lost that sense of retail enchantment; it was a place to shop rapidly rather than to experience.

Third, the conventional approach to understanding high street retail restructuring is to argue that shopping is being replaced by the consumption of experiences. The retail mix in shopping malls, and on the high street, has been shifting towards eating and drinking and a complex mix of experiences that cannot be delivered online. The problem is that all these experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to deliver as part of a socially distanced economy.

This raises some interesting questions regarding the future of the British high street. New socially distanced experiences will be more expensive given restrictions on consumer numbers. The shift that may be going to happen in the balance between home working and working in offices will alter the demand and geography of retail consumption. There will be reductions in demand in central business districts as some employees spend two or three days working from home.

It is possible to develop a long list of on-going restructuring processes – Covid-19, climate change, the anti-plastic movement, the shift to on-line retail and the decline of the high street and the impacts of artificial intelligence and machine learning on labour markets. Our socio-economy is experiencing a set of major strategic changes in which disruptive innovation sweeps aside existing business models. The extent and reach of these changes are perhaps alarming.

How do we explain these changes? One approach is found in evolutionary economic geography. This focuses on the relationship between decisions made in the past and the ways in which these restrict current and future options. Thus, decisions made by John Lewis to expand its store network set in train a direction of travel – a path dependent process. At the moment John Lewis is trying to break out of this path dependency and to create a new path – a new future. It is unfortunate, that this new path involves the closure of the Birmingham store. But John Lewis has not left Birmingham; the John Lewis retail experience is still available on-line to Birmingham residents. There are two issues to consider. On the one hand, there are the impacts of retail restructuring on retail employees. On the other hand, there is the problem of the future of both the high street and of shopping malls. Both are now under threat.

We are moving into a new era in which retail jobs follow manufacturing jobs. It used to be the case that manufacturing was very visible within out cities. More recently factories have relocated, and manufacturing has become largely invisible. Retailing is following this trend with the relocation of retail jobs to warehouses located on the edge of the city and on the motorway network. There are many things to consider here including the impacts on travel, residential location, and climate change. The new geography of retailing that is occurring requires a new geography of residential location and a transport system that is designed to transport people to edge city locations. The implication is that functions that were located in the centre of the city are now being flipped towards the edge as our cities are being turning inside out.

© Photo by West Midlands Growth Company