John Lewis “failed to make the most” of its central Birmingham store, the West Midlands’ mayor has said – as the retailer announced the permanent closure of eight stores.
Andy Street, who was once managing director of the British retail chain, was commenting after being told by the business the Grand Central store would never reopen, affecting 399 roles.
John Lewis confirmed it would be permanently closing the sprawling store, alongside seven other locations including its Watford department store, which it first said were at risk in July.
Mr Street said he had been “astounded” by the retailer’s decision not to reopen the Birmingham site, after he, together with city and economic leaders, put forward several “viable alternatives”.
Speaking on a weekly video-call with journalists on Friday, Mr Street said: “A sad piece of news that is to do with John Lewis in central Birmingham.
“We were contacted yesterday by them and they have indeed confirmed to their staff that the proposal to close the central Birmingham shop has become a reality and it will not now reopen.
“That is despite myself, (leader of Birmingham City Council) Ian Ward and (chief executive of the West Midlands Growth Company) Neil Rami having met with them and put forward what we believe were very viable alternatives which they have chosen not to accept.”
Mr Street had been urging the chain to reverse what he called the “dreadful mistake” of closing its Grand Central branch, since the proposal was announced at the end of July.
In a joint statement issued on behalf of the mayor, the city council and West Midlands Growth Company, immediately following the call, Mr Street said it was “a sad day for Birmingham”.
“Having had a productive meeting and subsequent correspondence with John Lewis bosses, including the chair Dame Sharon White, we are astounded by the decision to press ahead with the closure of the Birmingham store,” he said.
Mr Street said the Grand Central store which first opened in 2015 was in a “prime location” above the city’s busy main New Street station, with footfall “increasing year on year”.
He added that there had already been demand to fill the space vacated by the department store.
Mr Street said: “When you consider all of these factors you can only draw one conclusion: John Lewis has failed to make the most of the opportunity that Birmingham has offered them.”
He said the decision to close was no reflection on the “hard-working” staff.
Mr Street said with the 2022 Commonwealth Games coming to the city and as the fasting growing region outside the south east, he would be working to bring more businesses to the Midlands.
He added: “It is a great shame therefore that the retailer has decided to quit the city rather than attempt to make a success of any alternative proposal with our support.
“The Grand Central location is iconic for Birmingham, and we will now work with (landlord) Hammerson to make sure the space is filled promptly and appropriately.
“Today is a sad day for Birmingham, but one from which we will swiftly recover.”
In a statement the retailer said the affected stores were “already financially challenged prior to the pandemic and a number of contributing factors, including the shift towards online shopping which Covid-19 has accelerated, meant these shops would not be commercially viable in the future”.
The business said it would work with staff to find new roles where possible.
A John Lewis spokesman said: “This is a very sad occasion and one we never thought was imaginable when we first opened these shops.
“Our expectation was that we would trade in these locations for many years to come, but they were financially challenged before the pandemic and we have not been able to find a way that would allow us to turn that around.
“We are grateful to those who have expressed their support since announcing the proposed closure last month, and for the incredible professionalism our Partners have shown – they remain our absolute priority and will be fully supported over the coming weeks.”
The other affected stores previously announced as at-risk were its At Home stores in Croydon, Newbury, Swindon and Tamworth and travel sites at Heathrow airport and London St Pancras.