John Lewis is to disappear from Watford as the firm closes eight stores around England, putting 1,300 jobs at risk. How will its loss affect the town and its high street?
It is a landmark familiar even to people who have never set foot in Watford.
The town’s John Lewis store can be seen not just from its ring road but from the West Coast Mainline, alerting rail travellers that they are just 20 minutes from London Euston.
The chain’s history in the Hertfordshire town dates back to 1880 when young Cornishman Arthur Trewin bought a small draper’s shop in Queen’s Road.
It was sold to Gordon Selfridge in 1918, then acquired by the John Lewis Partnership, but remained as Trewins until 2001.
Now its 96,620 sq ft (8,976 sq m) store in the Intu centre, closed during the coronavirus lockdown, is to shut permanently.
Its loss will be felt most keenly by its 382 employees, or partners as they are known, but shoppers, already shocked by the news that the centre’s Debenhams will not reopen, are disappointed.
Jahmayne Cuffy, 30, from South Oxhey, said the news was “upsetting” as the store was “an institution” – but was something he had seen coming.
“They were too big and sold too many things. They haven’t invested in a new generation. I’m 30, and I don’t think of John Lewis,” he said.
But Mr Cuffy said he knew a lot of local people who worked there, and that a large number of staff going would affect the area’s economy.
“Staff would spend money on food around here… that’s a lot of money not going back into the town and a lot of people not coming into the town, so it’s a sad day.
“But what I look forward to is what’s going to replace it. Anything can grow from this situation.”
Gina Campanini, 27, from Croxley Green, was also “not really surprised” at the closure, mainly due to the effects of the pandemic.
“It was always quite empty when I’ve been in,” she said.
“I find it’s a bit over-expensive so I tend to go more to Primark and New Look.”
But she said the closure might be “devastating” for those who travelled to shop there.
“It’s such a big store and such a lot goes on in there – you can buy everything.”
Gillian Cummings, 54, from Sunderland, travels between Watford and the north-east due to her partner’s work.
She had gone into the town centre specifically to visit John Lewis and said she was “disappointed” by the news of its closure.
“If I’m looking for something it’s my go-to store,” she said.
“The items you buy are always good quality products. You may pay a little bit more for them but you know that they’re going to last.”
She said she did not think it would be the end of the town’s high street, but that those who travelled in just for John Lewis may not come back – and may head into London instead.
“It’s also just sad that those people who had been furloughed thought that it was a company that would be around, and now their jobs are in jeopardy,” she said.
The town’s elected mayor, Liberal Democrat Peter Taylor, said the closure was “incredibly sad news for our town” and the council was preparing to support those affected.
“John Lewis and its predecessor have played a really important part in the lives of generations of people in our town and this is undoubtedly a heartbreaking loss,” he said.
“My thoughts are with the John Lewis staff who are losing their jobs and facing a very worrying time. We are putting a package of support together for those affected and will work with John Lewis, as well as any other impacted businesses, to make sure that anyone who needs help and advice receives it.”
He said the Covid-19 pandemic was “proving tough” for many retailers and encouraged everyone in Watford to support local businesses.
Intu, which operates the mall formerly called the Harlequin Centre, is itself in administration.
Director Vicki Costello said news of the John Lewis closure was “very disappointing” and that the decision had been made “solely by the brand” – but the group was “confident” it could be replaced.
“Our thoughts are with their staff at this difficult time,” she said.
“The John Lewis store is a prime spot within a popular centre. We are confident that we will find an alternative use for this space, providing something new and exciting for our visitors to enjoy.”