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In age of e-commerce, John Lewis aims to be the anti-Amazon

[LONDON] British retailer John Lewis Partnership Plc is opening its 50th department store in London this week amid a spate of retail restructurings and outright collapses. In a bid to draw in shoppers, it's doubling down on everything it says Amazon.com Inc can't do.

The employee-owned retailer wants to build more personalised relationships with its customers through concierge-style services and educational sessions in the store's "discovery room".

Among the scheduled offerings are a talk on the art of hosting the perfect dinner party and another on the pillows, duvets and mattresses most likely to provide a blissful night's sleep.

The National Theatre has trained the store's 500 workers on how to improve their body language and communication with shoppers, and the shop's stylists were taught how to translate catwalk trends to the mass market at the London College of Style.

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It's a step beyond other retailers' efforts to turn shopping into an "experience" - and a far cry from Amazon's one-click ordering.

"Going head-to-head with a retailer that doesn't need to make a profit means we have to find a space in which we can operate," said Dino Rocos, John Lewis's operations director, referring to Amazon's practice of sacrificing earnings for growth. "You have to differentiate".

Amazon's growth has wreaked havoc on the UK's shopping streets, as department stores struggle to lure consumers away from their computer screens. In the UK, where e-commerce accounts for 18 per cent of retail sales, compared with 12 per cent in the US, Debenhams Plc is shrinking some shops and closing others, while House of Fraser is asking landlords for rent reductions. The BHS chain collapsed two years ago.

The new John Lewis store, the latest in a chain founded in 1864, forms part of the extension of a Westfield Corp shopping centre in west London that's still attractive to retail tenants because of an array of restaurants and bars that encourage lengthy shopping sprees.

John Lewis is trying to tap in to that trend itself by offering personal styling services over a glass of prosecco. Personal shoppers will send loyal customers text messages when a new cocktail dress or summer suit they might like arrives in store.

When the retailer committed to the four-story, £33 million (S$60.58 million) store in 2013, the UK economy was on the upswing and few expected the upheaval - exacerbated by Brexit-related cost pressure - that drove a 22 per cent drop in the retailer's profit last year.

John Lewis is set to open another store later this year, but managing director Paula Nickolds is coy on the prospect of further expansion.

Department stores need to be places of "inspiration and discovery," she said. "Retailers have to evolve very significantly, and at pace."

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