Talking Topic: A Discussion With Our John Lewis Buyer

Posted by Beth Pickard on

John Lewis has long been a customer to Talking Tables and was kind enough to support me in the early days. Sara Allbright has been particularly supportive in encouraging and guiding us within the games, gifts and jigsaw category, supporting us on year on year growth. Her experience in sourcing and buying within the UK gift industry is very broad so it was a pleasure to debate the multiple topical issues we face today.

 I led with mentioning that the recent Sunday Papers had unusually featured Supply Chains in the main sections due to the various issues around shipping, lack of HV drivers and shortage of workers in food processing. I asked how John Lewis was faring in this unusual time with regard to logistics.

 Sara said that John Lewis was not immune to these issues and one of the bigger challenges is understanding the actual underlying variables and levers in such a complex situation. The outcome is, as we know, a massive uplift in shipping costs and delays. Sara is aware of some large USA retailers chartering their own container ships. Others, including herself, have abandoned some items originating from Asia as they would have missed the peak Christmas shopping window.  Christmas may even launch a little later this year – but as it has been such an unusual year all things need to be considered. Sara observed that the “insanely high costs” have not hit the consumer as yet but she feels it is inevitable that they will have to share some of the rising costs and share the pain, which in turn may deflate demand and reduce shipping volumes! Ultimately all retailers and buyers will need to assess whether the individual item, with all its associated costs, is actually worth it.

Sara also pointed out that this Christmas, with so many stock challenges, the buyers will be forced to trade the stock they do have – not to fret about a potential lost sale, nor to price promote to drive faster sales, but to celebrate a 100% sell-thru at a full price. She called this the lost art of in-season selling.

In the longer term, buyers and vendors will turn their attention to stock that can be bought more locally, be that from the UK or mainland Europe. The price differential may be acceptable going forward and new sourcing routes will open up.

Whilst rather overshadowed by the arrival of Covid-19, we tend to forget that Brexit used be the main topic of business chatter. I asked what impact Brexit had made in reality to Sara within gifts at John Lewis.

It seems that Brexit has not made a major impact on Sara directly in her team. John Lewis had done plenty of planning in advance. The duties in themselves have been quite small and as a wider team, they have managed and become used to the extra paperwork which is now absorbed into the new every day.

A few oddities have cropped up such as not been able to move seeds into Northern Ireland without excessive paperwork.

Sara is aware of our application for BCorp and I asked how this might relate to John Lewis.

Sara loves and admires what BCorp stands for. “It is not an easy process to jump through the hoops demanded of becoming BCorp” and she values that investment by a vendor. Although as yet, Sara noted that being BCorp is quite hard to communicate to the end shopper on one party bunting versus another in store or online. Sara mentioned that Waitrose is highlighting such BCorp brands online and we debated how this messaging could bubble more to the surface.   

What is the future of trade shows and new product sourcing?

Sara had heard from several suppliers that Harrogate Gift Show in July 2021 had been very positive. She suggested this may indicate a moment of strength for independent retailers who are being supported by shoppers shopping locally and holidaying within the UK.  Sara is pondering whether smaller shows will be more popular going forward than those contained with large exhibition halls such as the NEC.
 Even pre-Covid Sara found social media a prevalent source of new trends and new emerging hashtags.  Also, John Lewis, with the Great British Exchange, use regional pop-ups also as an insight into emerging brands and trends. They take a % of sales, so can see the winners.

For sourcing, the use of a handheld camera, being zoomed around a Chinese factory showroom has not been able to replace a face to face Far East trip where one rummages around shelves of unexpected treasures that lead to a new season winning development. As we said before, the inevitable outcome will be trying to source closer to home and perhaps uncovering new sources of manufacture in UK or mainland that were not yet on our radar. The hardest SKUs to replace will be the hand-intensive products sometimes made in necessarily “messy” factories.

I asked if Sara expected the growth in games and jigsaws to continue post pandemic.

Sara essentially thinks both categories will thrive and the numbers are already holding up relative to pre-Covid sales. She noted that they were already a substantial category, but given a spotlight and boost during Covid. Games has plenty of innovation and freshness, such as Talking Tables Escape room games.

Sara feels jigsaws still need somewhat of an image makeover. Many people secretly enjoy jigsaws; prisoners have even been shown to benefit from their creativity and mindful activity. There may also be a way to make jigsaws part of a circular economy, by passing them onto a another puzzler. Thus Sara feels there is more to come from a contemporary jigsaw.

 I very much enjoyed chatting and debating with Sara.

- Clare

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