“Please don’t go”: The reaction of residents to the closure of Sheffield’s iconic John Lewis store

Written by Emily Staniforth

“Please don’t go. You will be missed.”

This is just one of the notes left on the windows of Sheffield’s beloved John Lewis department store after it was announced it would not be reopening after lockdown ended.

The announcement, made on 24 March, has left much of the city bereft. It is hard to find a Sheffielder without cherished memories of the place.

The abundance of paper hearts and cards left by locals goes to demonstrate the outpouring of affection towards the institution which has stood proudly in the city centre for 174 years.

Paper hearts on the window of John Lewis

Barbara Robertson, who has worked at the store for 43 years, said: “You’ve got to always trust that the decisions are made for the right reasons but I’m struggling with this one.”

The decision to close such a prominent Sheffield staple also shocked many given that Sheffield City Council invested £3m in John Lewis only last year.

The council granted them a new 20-year lease with a rent contract based on turnover to help the store continue trading, and committed to investing in the refurbishment of the building to help the store thrive. The shop in Barker’s Pool had been at the heart of development plans for Sheffield city centre, having held a special place in the history of the city.

It was first opened as Cole Brothers in 1847 and has often been referred to as Sheffield’s “flagship store.”

The sense of history associated with the retailer is one of the main causes of grief amongst Sheffield residents who feel a special connection to the shop.

Jane Hadaway*, a regular customer of the store said: “It always seemed really busy and it always seemed really vibrant and I think as a city it holds its place in so many hearts. You only have to chat with people to hear people’s memories. They came here with their mum when they were tiny. People chat about Coles Corner and meeting up with friends there, it’s got such a symbolic history to Sheffield.”

A message left by Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, said: “I shopped in the original Cole Brothers with my mother and remember the new store opening in 1963. Coles has been an important part of the city for almost 200 years, so it’s really disappointing that John Lewis have decided to close the store.”

The press release from the John Lewis Partnership cited the move to online shopping as one of the major factors in the decision not to reopen the Sheffield store and seven others throughout the UK.

They said: “This follows substantial research to identify and cater for new customer shopping habits in different parts of the country. As part of this, we can unfortunately no longer profitably sustain a large John Lewis store in some locations where we do not have enough customers, which is resulting in the proposed closures. The eight shops were financially challenged prior to the pandemic.”

However it is clear from the public reaction to the closure that many think the sentimental value of the store and its place in Sheffield’s history should be taken into account.

A heartfelt poster left by a John Lewis customer

Barbara said: “It’s been at this site since 1963 so for my generation and an older generation it’s always been here, it’s always been renowned for the people who work here, it’s always been renowned for its value, it’s the friendliest shop you could ever want to go on and I guess people just hold that very very dear.”

Ellie Kay, who recently moved to Matlock and has since been a regular customer at the Sheffield John Lewis said: “From what I can gather as a relative newcomer to the area it’s such a part of Sheffield and it brings in a lot of people. It’s got a big catchment area of people wanting to come into Sheffield to shop here.”

Without a John Lewis in the city centre, customers can now only access John Lewis online, or by travelling to other stores in Leeds or Manchester.

Shehzaed Ahmed, who has shopped regularly at John Lewis for over four years said: “I enjoy the quality and the customer service. You can find anything online but customer service is really important. I love to go and just stroll and feel the stuff because for pricey stuff you want the right feel.”

Ellie echoed this sentiment, adding: “I know you can go online but not everyone wants that experience. I don’t want to shop online. I want customer service – trying things on and banter and browsing. That’s what nice department stores are all about and they’re all going. It’s really sad.”

Evidently, the staff and customer service available at John Lewis are a huge part of why people will miss the store. The closure has jeopardized around 300 jobs.

Images of the John Lewis and its staff throughout the store’s history adorn the windows of the closed store

Jane said: “I think the knowledge of the staff is incredible. As a customer whenever I’ve been shopping people know you. It’s known as this ‘John Lewis family’, and as a customer you do feel part of that family. The business has a good relationship with customers and if there are any issues things do get dealt with and your complaint is heard so I think it’s a shop that people can trust. I don’t think people would have kept going all this time if they didn’t feel it was a shop they could trust and get good customer service.”

A petition to get John Lewis to reconsider their decision has reached nearly 24,000 signatures and claims the closure of the store will cause major setbacks in the city’s redevelopment plan.

Whatever the reason for the opposition to the closure, it is clear that the people of Sheffield feel deeply the loss of such an institution like John Lewis.

You can find a link to the petition to save John Lewis here.

*name changed to protect identity

Written by Emily Staniforth

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