POSH play­grounds for grown-ups!

Wreath-mak­ing lessons. Bak­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy mas­ter­classes. How John Lewis is gam­bling £3m on turn­ing its shops into...

Scottish Daily Mail - - Inspire - by Mag­gie Alder­son

Stand­ing in a stylish kitchen, i’m whip­ping up a batch of mac­a­roons and some rather tasty eclairs un­der the tute­lage of chef Jess Wooldridge.

Ear­lier this morn­ing, i made a mas­sive fes­tive wreath in the loose, nat­u­ral style that’s cur­rently fash­ion­able — as i was in­formed by an­other ex­pert teacher — with great sprigs of rose­mary and eu­ca­lyp­tus sprout­ing out at an­gles.

and, later on, i’ll pop into a cal­lig­ra­phy work­shop to learn how to make my Christ­mas cards look ex­tra-special.

But this isn’t some pricey ex­pe­ri­ence day: many of the classes are free. in fact, it’s a glimpse of what John Lewis be­lieves the fu­ture of re­tail could look like.

the depart­ment store, which, like its ri­vals, is strug­gling as bricks-and­mor­tar stores lose out to on­line shop­ping, has spent £3 mil­lion trans­form­ing its Southamp­ton branch into an ‘ex­pe­ri­ence play­ground’ for grown-ups.

i’m the first jour­nal­ist in­vited to put it through its paces.

in prac­tice, that means there are classes and work­shops tak­ing place as you wan­der around. My bak­ing class is in full view of pass­ing shop­pers in the mid­dle of the cook­ware depart­ment, and lit­tle knots of peo­ple keep stop­ping to watch. i love it — i feel as if i am on the great Bri­tish Bake Off.

and it doesn’t hurt that our bak­ing ef­forts send de­li­cious smells float­ing through the shop — chef Jess says peo­ple have been sign­ing up on the spot, drawn in by the won­der­ful aroma.

Of course, there’s a com­mer­cial pur­pose to all this. While you make your eclairs, you’re also put­ting the store’s kitchen gad­gets through their paces, in­creas­ing the chance (it hopes) that you will choose to buy one.

ThE bak­ing course is one of 70 ex­pe­ri­ences, events and ex­pert ser­vices cus­tomers can now try at the store, which can be booked on­line or via the in-store ex­pe­ri­ences hub. Some are free, oth­ers paid-for, but you leave with some­thing sub­stan­tial, such as your wreath, as well as new skills.

it’s not just Southamp­ton, ei­ther — you can try a wine-tast­ing class at John Lewis White City in West Lon­don, or one on iPad skills in the Ch­ester branch. tortellini­mak­ing, veg­e­tar­ian cook­ery and ‘styling ba­sics’ are also on of­fer.

‘Our new con­cept shop is an ex­am­ple of how we’re rein­vent­ing the depart­ment store of the fu­ture to make us stand out from the com­pe­ti­tion,’ says John Lewis cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence di­rec­tor Peter Cross.

it had to do some­thing. Ear­lier this year, the group posted its first-ever hal­fyear losses — fur­ther ev­i­dence of the re­tail cri­sis that has al­ready pushed deben­hams and house Of Fraser to the brink of obliv­ion.

high Streets that used to be rammed ev­ery week­end are now sad and empty.

So it’s no won­der John Lewis is do­ing ev­ery­thing it can to get us away from our screens and back into its stores.

But will any­one ac­tu­ally bother to shop in this leisurely, but time­con­sum­ing, way?

Southamp­ton isn’t the first place you think of as a shop­ping mecca, but, when i ar­rive on a rainy tues­day morn­ing, there is a pal­pa­ble buzz in the air. Ex­cited-look­ing shop­pers pack the store, gen­uinely keen, it seems, to en­joy them­selves. there isn’t even a sale on.

Cru­cially, the new ex­pe­ri­ences aren’t hid­den away in dreary back­stage con­fer­ence rooms, but are out on the floor, ex­pertly staged for im­pact.

Plenty of peo­ple walked by when i was at­tach­ing large branches of holly to my wreath, and work­ing on my down­strokes in the cal­lig­ra­phy work­shop, and you could see their in­ter­est was piqued. the ex­perts on of­fer are prop­erly knowledgab­le, too. take Chris Wood, prod­uct de­vel­oper for Waitrose’s hor­ti­cul­ture depart­ment, who shows me how to put to­gether my wreath. he’s one of those peo­ple with magic fin­gers — ev­ery­thing he touches looks beau­ti­ful.

and that might well in­spire a lit­tle bit of brand loy­alty — the elu­sive grand prize in this cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion for con­sumers’ at­ten­tion.

John Lewis cer­tainly isn’t the only store throw­ing its hat into the ring. Sel­fridges al­ready does ster­ling work on cus­tomer en­gage­ment and re­cently posted a set of bumper results for the year to Fe­bru­ary, with an in­crease in sales of 6 per cent and £170 mil­lion in profit.

What the Ox­ford Street be­he­moth de­liv­ers is not just good gear, but a thrilling shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence. For in­stance, in december, you can get make-up tips from brand owner tr­ish McEvoy her­self, or take your chil­dren to a toy event run by the Sci­ence Mu­seum. So, how does John Lewis mea­sure up? My first im­pres­sions are very pos­i­tive. Con­sumer re­search types have termed the new trend for hav­ing ex­pe­ri­ences while you browse ‘shop­per­tain­ment’. i can see quite a few of my fe­male — and male — friends whiling away a Satur­day af­ter­noon at tech­nol­ogy tu­to­ri­als, or get­ting gar­den­ing ad­vice in the store’s roof gar­den. Sharing such ex­pe­ri­ences with other shop­pers who are equally in­vested in hav­ing a great day out adds an­other level of en­gage­ment. Sim­ply put, it’s fun hav­ing a gig­gle in a cal­lig­ra­phy class (which i loved), chat­ting about how you were taught hand­writ­ing at school and see­ing who man­ages to get the most ink on their fin­gers. there is also a sense of joint achieve­ment when we leave with our beau­ti­ful, hand­writ­ten Christ­mas gift tags.

it helps, too, that what­ever ex­pe­ri­ence you choose comes with the John Lewis hall­mark. the brand’s long his­tory of high-qual­ity prod­ucts and trust­wor­thy con­sumer ad­vice makes it well placed to start run­ning cour­ses with ex­perts that peo­ple will ac­tu­ally want to take.

i’ve tried ex­pe­ri­ences such as this be­fore in in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ers, as well as those ex­pen­sive ‘ex­pe­ri­ence days’ that are now such pop­u­lar gifts. Some were ex­cel­lent, oth­ers less so — but i feel as if you can rely on a cer­tain stan­dard from John Lewis.

So i say bring on the fu­ture of shop­ping!

For a full list of in-store op­por­tu­ni­ties at a John Lewis near you, visit john­lewis.com

Berry pretty: Mag­gie wreath-mak­ing at John Lewis

In-store bak­ery: Mag­gie’s eclairs

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