May 24, 2021
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John Lewis chair urges radical business rates reform, wants stores to have local feel

May 24, 2021

It’s a subject close to the heart of many physical retailers: the scrapping of the business rates system. Latest to join the call for change is Sharon White, and the John Lewis chair wants it replaced it with a new land tax that will enable high street retailers to compete more fairly with online rivals.

John Lewis

White, an economist who previously worked as the Treasury's most senior civil servant, told The Telegraph newspaper that radical reform is required. She wants a “much more stable and enduring way to tax” bricks-and-mortar retail that has taken a double hit, from the pandemic and the shift to e-commerce.

“If I’m frustrated it’s because we haven’t yet had action on the structural issue, which is that the business rates regime was designed for a world in which retail dominated the high street", she told the newspaper. 

“Far be it from me to advise my successors, and it’s not straightforward, but I would be looking at land taxes”.

She warned chancellor Rishi Sunak that reforms to how businesses are taxed must allow retailers of all types to adapt to new patterns of consumer spending. She also dismissed calls for an online sales tax: “These things are so blended. The idea that somehow there are bricks-and-mortar retailers and they are separate from digital is just fiction.”

The exec, who took the helm at John Lewis just weeks before the pandemic struck, admitted it has been “quite a year”.

She announced the closure of eight stores last July and another eight this March, leaving it with 34 stores nationwide. But she insists there will be no more closures, despite the continuing shift to shopping online.

“We had doubled the number of stores from 2008. The decisions we have taken have basically taken us back to where we were in 2012. So we have fewer, but now your stores have got to be extraordinary and they have got to be destinations. So now we are really investing in our stores and we’ve got no proposals to close any more”.

Ongoing upgrades are designed to make each John Lewis store different. She told the newspaper that she aims to restore some local colour to a chain that she says had become a “bit generic” in its look and feel. 

For instance, she pointed to the reopened Edinburgh store where visitors are greeted by life-size stags and a replica of the Flying Scotsman -- part of an attempt to make John Lewis more family-friendly.

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