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News - 14 March 2015

The Brighton John Lewis jigsaw

So why would John Lewis plc buy 129-133 North Street Brighton which just happens to be the home of Boots Department store?

Brighton, like many places, has had an unrequited love affair with John Lewis for decades. It was rumoured that when Churchill Square was redeveloped in the late 1990s they were offered cash and a substantial rent-free period to become the anchor store in the shopping mall. Whether or not it is true is moot and we eventually ended up with a rather lacklustre Debenhams that relocated from an almost-derelict store at the far end of Western Road opposite Waitrose.

The John Lewis group has already demonstrated its confidence in the city with its takeover of the Co-op superstore in Hove; a deal that is rumoured to have increased house prices in the area by 10-15%.

But the purchase of the ageing North Street store is a deal of a different colour. With only one small supermarket in Western Road, Waitrose had been missing out on the increasing affluence of the city for a long time and the Co-op purchase was a no-brainer, especially since it is one of the larger supermarket premises in Brighton & Hove.

But North Street, literally in the heart of the city, raises many questions despite the statement by a spokesperson for John Lewis trying to quell expectations: “We can confirm that John Lewis plc is now the owner of 129-133 North Street in Brighton. This will not impact the current tenants and the businesses will continue to trade as normal for the foreseeable future”.

John Lewis isn’t a company that is into speculative purchases akin to playing the stock market or gambling at Las Vegas. It isn’t the country’s most successful retailer because it is reckless; its strategy for expansion stretches years into the future and it may be that Boots will remain at the top of North Street well into the next decade. Or perhaps only until 2020 when its lease expires. In any event, John Lewis clearly has plans for Brighton as confirmed by the rest of the spokesperson’s quote: “We do have an ambition to eventually have a presence in Brighton, but plans for this are a considerable way off.”

The Boots store could make a decent John Lewis Home outlet but it is too small in its current format to make a decent department store although it does have a floor above the existing two sales floors that could be converted to retail space. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to construct another layer on top of the building or demolish and rebuild altogether if you have the money [which John Lewis certainly does].

But a more intriguing question is where do the company’s plans fit into the much vaunted redevelopment proposals for Churchill Square which have recently been resurrected from their post-recession slumber? With ambitions to almost double the size of Churchill Square by extending it down to the sea, the obvious place for a major, prestige department store would be in the new shopping mall together with other anchor tenants [e.g. Marks & Spencer relocating from its current site in Western Road].

Does John Lewis intend to radically re-engineer the Boots store to make it a decent size and become a department store or occupy it like it is with a smaller John Lewis Home format. Or is the purchase a forward-thinking bargaining chip to get the best deal out of any revamped Churchill Square or a hedge against the redevelopment of Churchill Square never happening?

Time will tell and, for the moment time is on John Lewis’ side but in any event it is a great expression of confidence in Brighton & Hove.

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