John Lewis decision to close landmark Birmingham store ‘a dreadful mistake’

John Lewis in Grand Central

John Lewis is to close its landmark Birmingham store and its At Home store in Tamworth, putting hundreds of retail jobs in the West Midlands under threat.

The under-pressure retailer is permanently closing eight of its stores, putting 1,300 jobs at risk. There are 522 staff at Birmingham and Tamworth affected by the consultation.

John Lewis’s store was the anchor to the Grand Central development and a source of pride for the city in underpinning its new-found confidence. It employed 650 people when the 136,000 sq ft store opened five years ago.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street had been managing director of John Lewis when it opened, before he left the company to launch his political career. But in the intervening years high street retail has become more difficult and the fortunes of John Lewis have waned.

Street, who is up for re-election next May, is going to try and persuade the company to change its decision.

He said: “I still believe the store can not only be a great success, but also provide a brilliant retail offer for the city and the wider region.

“At this stage the closure is still only a proposal, and one which I believe risks being a dreadful mistake. Therefore I will be making the case for why the company should not give up this tremendous opportunity in Birmingham.”

The company said the stores that are closing “were already financially challenged” before lockdown. However the retail group believes the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping and estimates it could account for 60-70% of total sales “this year and next”, a big jump from the previous level of 40%.

Sharon White, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said: “We believe closures are necessary to help us secure the sustainability of the Partnership – and continue to meet the needs of our customers however and wherever they want to shop.

“Redundancies are always an absolute last resort and we will do everything we can to keep as many Partners as possible within our business.”

John Lewis is also closing its department store in Watford, its At Home stores in Croydon, Newbury and Swindon, and travel sites at Heathrow airport and London St Pancras.

White added: “There are many reasons to be optimistic about the Partnership’s future. Waitrose and John Lewis are two of the UK’s most loved and trusted brands and we have adapted to the challenges of the pandemic by responding to the new needs of customers. We will soon announce the output of our strategic review which will ensure our brands stay relevant for future generations of customers.”

Neil Rami, chief executive of the West Midlands Growth Company, said: “We’re incredibly disheartened to hear the news of the John Lewis store closure in Birmingham.

“The onset of COVID-19 has exacerbated the ongoing difficulties faced by the retail sector and the unfortunate closures of stores up and down the country. It is sad to see that trends in the retail market have affected our region and the survival of an iconic brand like John Lewis – an important part of our city centre fabric and visitor offer.

“We are hopeful that Birmingham’s standing as the most significant retail hub outside of London positions the region strongly through this UK-wide period of uncertainty.

“We are keen to work with John Lewis Partnership and Hammerson to ensure that all possible safeguarding measures are explored in recognition of one of our most important anchor retailers and its employment of local people.”

CBI West Midlands regional director Richard Butler, said the announcement was a “huge blow”.

He said: “It is deeply disappointing that we are losing an iconic brand from Birmingham City Centre. This shows the depth and breadth of the economic challenge facing Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.

“The mini budget yesterday was welcome but the news about John Lewis shows the need for sustained support for our region to keep our shops open.

“We need these businesses to survive and thrive to support our region in months ahead.”