John Lewis - Meanwhile back on Earth.

John Lewis have recently reworked and relaunched the entire two floors Home Department of their Oxford Street flagship store, spending a reported £14million in the process. The aim? To offer customers a more 'inspiring shopping experience'. So what does £14million of inspiring shopper experience look like?

The first thing any visitor to the second or third floor will notice is that statement installations abound. A giant walk-in sculptured head (more of this later), a collection of room-like 'Creative Spaces' curated by named interior designers and brands owners, not to mention the beautiful double floor height lampshade 'suspended on 300 strings', a live virtual reality furniture modelling set and a whole new staircase to aid access.

The biggest change however is in the product display format and style.

Furniture and accessories alike are now grouped into 24 informal and distinct Lifestyle Sets.

Why such an expense? Ruth Payne, Operations Manager at John Lewis, was quick to justify the thinking. 'The refit isn't just a refresh - it's a whole change in our approach. Customers don't shop for furniture by colour… they search out a look and then buy within that look'.

This simple idea is central to the whole new John Lewis Home Department approach. Ruth of course is right. If you know your style you naturally gravitate towards shops that match your aesthetic. However in the real world people often struggle to specifically define and put a universally understood name to the look they prefer.

John Lewis recognise this and have developed a 360 degree supported customer journey centred firstly on first helping shoppers define their look and then curating a wide range of options within it.

At the heart and the start of this journey is an innovative concept called the Head of Design. Contrary to what you might think, it's not a new management appointment but an actual giant head-shaped booth where you can explore a range of design looks, decide which is your particular style and identify what you should call it.

The interactive experience involves choosing preferred materials, products, colour palettes and combined room look options across a rolling series of pages. The choices and decision time are all factors in the outcome.

The result is a named 'look' complete with a mood board providing a 'True North' to guide your extended shopper experience. From 'Elegant Town House' to 'Relaxed Country', there are half a dozen different looks to categorise your preference.

Freshly armed with your defined style, you're then free to explore the all-new informal room sets across two lavishly merchandised floors. If you need more help, there's a 'Design Studio' home stylist to offer advice from the floor and a VR Set that allows you to place your own choice of virtual chairs around a physical table again via an ipad.

So is this process being adopted and is it reflected in shopper behaviour? Whilst the mission and insight-centric thinking appear sound, in practice the process doesn't translate into a real world linear journey. There was never a queue to use the Head of Design booth despite a shop filled with happy looking spending customers. Instead, traditional shopping behaviours prevailed with customers going straight to the room sets and instinctively finding their style through physical as opposed to digital exploration.

Actually, skipping the first stage of the journey isn't a problem, the room sets work beautifully, are expertly styled and naturally lead to consideration beyond the original target planned purchase. Navigating by style feels much more natural than processing past tens of individual side tables. The shopper's imagination is stimulated at every turn by new product choices that work within their chosen look as opposed to being from a specific IKEA style 'match matchy' collection.

So all is good then? Well not exactly. Given the comprehensive (and expensive) approach to the refit it was surprising that many of the much heralded experiences fell short. Pull back the Wizard of Oz curtain on the iconic 'Head of Design' and you reveal a rather underwhelming single ipad on a plinth. The mood board generating programming lacks behavioural signposting to help deal with the repetition of the selection tasks and more worryingly I found it all too easy to end up with a prescribed look that doesn't accurately reflect your personal style. Clearly the number of looks that can be catered for and categorised are limited and have to be matched by floor space to merchandise them – but confidently serving up a compromised style prescription somewhat undermines the whole process.

Additionally, staff struggled to explain and demonstrate the interactive technology, especially on the VR Set where the potential is exciting but the experience at present is thin and limited to juggling a few chairs around a table.

The lavishly produced 'Look Leaflets' were incomplete as a set and tricky to find even if you knew they were available. Lastly and disappointingly, neither of my two Head Of Design mood boards have arrived via email despite a week of waiting.

But despite these issues, John Lewis must be praised for their ambition. They are trying new approaches and experimenting with new ways to put a buzz back into the shopping process. Ruth Payne is confident, 'We've had lots of very positive feedback from customers already - and yes it has made a difference to our takings'.

So will John Lewis see a return on their investment? £14m is a huge amount to spend on just two floors and whilst some of this money no doubt has been committed to upfront research and staff training (not to mention building a new staircase) the question remains, has it all been worth it?

Only time will tell. The returns will be measured over years like other John Lewis refits and the upfront fixed costs amortised across the wider roll-out of the concept tentatively planned for 2017.

It occurs to me that JLP have been observing the practices of near neighbours like Apple – surely the most immersive brand experience in retailing – and Selfridges, which in recent years has transformed itself from a somewhat traditional department store into one of the most dynamic examples of retail theatre. As a result, they are intent on not only making their shopping experience much more up to date but secondly embarking on a strategy of total brand modernisation by recognising the pressing need to attract a younger audience.

From a customer perspective John Lewis is taking a chance on shoppers adopting technology as an aid to their purchasing journey – clearly a logical and widely shared perspective. However at present the real world experience they are offering needs more utility, depth and practicality beyond the headlines.

PREVIOUS:
Now recruiting: Junior Graphic Designer
NEXT:
Design Objective