Anna Berry is Partner and Head of Buying, Gifts, Cook and Dine, at John Lewis & Partners in the UK. After three decades with the company, she continues to inspire the industry by approaching buying as a mix of science and art.
by Michelle Hespe
Who doesn’t love a beautiful, immaculate department store filled with exciting things to see and do? Lights showcasing shiny new products, guest chefs cooking up a storm and filling the air with delectable scents, demonstrations luring shoppers in, music playing and customers smiling as they explore.
John Lewis & Partnersis that kind of place, and the fact that Anna Berry has been with the same company for three decades is testimony to what an inspiring workplace John Lewis really is. It also means that the powers-that-be at this iconic company love what Berry does to inspire her loyal customers, while attracting and embracing new ones to the fold.
During those 30 years, Berry has had the fortune to never be in the same role for more than three years, and so her approach to retail has continually evolved in tune with the highly innovative company itself.
In 1864 John Lewis opened its doors, and a century later the philosophy remains the same as it always was: to deliver amazing value, assortment, service and honesty to its customers. “We sum up the core of our philosophy as ‘a better way of doing business,’” Berry explains.
Over the past few decades, Berry has developed, applied, adapted and stretched her skills in many different, inspiring ways. “This has kept me in the business,” she says. “I love the John Lewis way of doing business. It is a worker’s cooperative with all of us sharing in the profit. I love that we get to reinvent our products and our propositions every year, and I personally love mentoring and managing my team of buyers— it’s a driving force of inspiration. And when I work on a plan with my team to revolutionize a category, hearing them talk about product with such passion makes my heart beat that bit faster.”
Today there are 50 John Lewis shops throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Berry has worked across stationery, men’s accessories, sporting equipment, and gifts in addition to technology-based projects and in commercial management, which included supplier negotiation.
“These varied roles have taught me different skills and made me realize that strategic buying is what I truly love, and what keeps it all exciting,” Berry says. Following stints as the jewelry buyer and then the premium beauty buyer, she moved into Home as Head of Buying, Cook and Dine in June 2015. In May 2018, Gifting (including Christmas) was added to her remit.
Berry has loved every new challenge and alongside John Lewis, has adapted to the times, always ensuring that the service and products offered remain relevant and that customers are continually engaged with the brand.
“This is a most challenging time in retail, and agility and pace are key,” she says. “The market has been transformed by the pure players which did not exist when I first came into buying. John Lewis has had to transform its ability to move quickly but the principles of buying remain the same – source brilliant product at the right price in the right quantity at the right time. Know your customers and always be on the lookout for the next big thing.”
John Lewis, being so ingrained in English society, has an incredibly loyal following. “The John Lewis ‘own-brand’, John Lewis & Partners, that was launched in September this year is a powerful branding tool, as there are very few full-line department store ‘own-brands’ left. This brings to the fore the thing which makes us different— our PARTNERS,” says Berry.
Berry acknowledges that John Lewis is not the cheapest store in the market, but rather, it offers the best value for quality, and focuses on differentiating itself from other department stores. “In an omni-channel world we have to differentiate on service in our shops. We are also making those shops more experiential and providing services such as personal styling and eventing,” explains Berry. “This is very hard to replicate online. And again, it’s the partner who services you that is key.”
As is the case with any business, new technology and the rate at which technological advances are happening has had a major impact on John Lewis, and two of the most obvious ramifications that Berry has noticed recently are visibility on prices and the pace of delivery.“Social media is important for us— we are increasingly using it to our benefit as a marketing tool to attract new and younger customers to our business. The shift to online is key for us but we use it to drive people into shops with eventing and blogging,” says Berry.
Berry loves the fact that John Lewis is constantly “launching newness.” For example, the store has recently increased eventing such as tasting and cookery lessons, celebrity chef appearances and workshops, and in-store gin and Prosecco bars. Berry’s categories in particular are ripe for showcasing the company’s many innovations and clever eventing.
“Christmas this year in our Oxford Street shop will be amazing!” exclaims Berry.“We’ll have incredible tree forests, gin bars, collaborations with confectionery companies. These will all lead to endless Instagram opportunities!”
As a mentor to many of her staff, and someone who truly inspires others in retail, Berry advises others who want to succeed in retail to always be open to new challenges.
“Trust your instincts and focus on the things that you love and are great at – we often spend too much time on the things we want to improve,” she advises. “Look around you for influences. Read widely, do your research — online makes this easy. Build strong relationships with others, as true collaboration always leads to better results. Remember it is in both your supplier’s interests and your interests to build your business together — if it is a bad deal for them, eventually it is a bad deal for you. Focus on the big wins and gather a great team around you. Know your customer and know your market.”
After three decades in the business, Berry has learned that sometimes, you need to trust your instincts and then manage the risk. “Sometimes you get it wrong — the product may be right, but the price may be wrong, the timing may be out,” she says. “But if you are open and honest with your suppliers and can manage the risk together, you will overcome obstacles and succeed. Buying is, and always will be, a mix of science and art,” she says. “And that’s not only exciting, it’s inspiring for us and for our customers when they see the things we can achieve.”
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