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Store’s new army of stylists generate up to 20% of clothing sales as high street sells ‘experiences’ to beat the gloom

Stylists Lucy Knight , Maya Shah and Gursh Reandi at John Lewis, Westfield Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

It’s one of this season’s biggest trends but it’s not animal print or cycling shorts: high street fashion retailers are hiring armies of personal stylists to give shoppers the VIP treatment as they battle the slump in clothing sales.

“There is still a bit of a stigma [around personal styling] from back in the day when Trinny and Susannah and Gok Wan would strip you off and make you stand in front a mirror in your bra and knickers,” says Lucy Knight, one of the 140 stylists now employed to help shoppers find their best looks – and boost clothing sales – on the fashion floors of John Lewis & Partners department stores. “It’s not like that.”

Department stores have found themselves in the firing line as the growth of online shopping sucks sales out of the high street. To stay relevant John Lewis boss Paula Nickolds believes its stores need to get into the business of selling “experiences” as they fight for a slice of discretionary consumer spending that increasingly competes with mini breaks and nights out.

To that end its customers can now expect the kind of red carpet treatment usually found in upmarket stores such as Harrods and Selfridges. A two-hour session with Knight, who is based in the “style studio” in John Lewis’s newest branch in the Westfield super mall in west London is free but other services such as an epic four-and-a half-hour treatment in the beauty salon come with a hefty price tag.

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“Your client needs to trust you in the first 30 seconds,” says Knight, who is not paid commission on sales even though well-heeled shoppers typically part with £200 to £500 on the back of her advice. “If you don’t build that trust straight away it’s going to become a difficult appointment.”

Knight’s job is to help women find the “perfect pair of jeans” or assemble a killer work wardrobe, preferably from John Lewis’s own clothing labels, which include Modern Rarity and Kin. At a time when struggling rivals are discounting heavily, selling the department store’s own brands reaps higher profit margins.

John Lewis is trying to push back against a trend that has seen women – who spend more than twice the amount men do on clothes – cut back on new outfits in favour of more socialising and exercise. The advice sessions offered by Knight and the five other stylists based at the store are proving lucrative. The six personal shoppers now generate 20% of the store’s womenswear sales.

Elisa Ivyrevel Elisa Shift Ivyrevel Camel Dress “British fashion shoppers are down in number, buying less per trip and getting more on discount than they were last year,” says Kantar Worldpanel’s consumer insight director Glen Tooke of what is a worrying shift for fashion retailers. The total amount spent on fashion and clothing in the UK over the last year was just over £35bn – £512m less than two years ago.

Quick guide

Trouble on the UK high street

Maplin, Toys R Us and Jacques Vert have all collapsed in recent months, but a raft of retailers and restaurant groups are facing financial problems and are trying to close stores or negotiate rent cuts.

House of Fraser: The department store chain is expected to close about 12 stores after being bought out of administration by Mike Ashley. It had agreed a CVA under which 31 stores were to close, but this lapsed on administration.

Homebase: The DIY chain is closing at least 42 stores after completing a CVA organised by new owner Hilco.  The restructuring expert bought the DIY chain for £1 from its former Australian owner Wesfarmers who botched an attempt to bring its Bunnings chain to the UK.

Dress Elisa Ivyrevel Shift Ivyrevel Camel Elisa Poundworld: The discount retailer has closed all its 355 stores, with the loss of 5,100 jobs after falling into administration in June.

Cau: The owner of the Gaucho and Cau steakhouses fell into administration in July leading to the closure of all 22 Cau restaurants, with loss of 750 jobs. The groups lenders have since bought the 16 Gaucho outlets.

Mothercare: The chain is closing 60 of its 137 outlets after agreeing a CVA in May. Additional closures in July mean 900 jobs will be lost.

Carluccio's: The Italian chain secured a CVA to close 30 of its 99 restaurants in late May.

New Look: The fashion chain obtained a CVA in March to cut rents and close 60 stores, with the loss of nearly 1,000 jobs. The rent cuts – on 363 stores – were between 15% and 55%.

Elisa Ivyrevel Dress Elisa Camel Shift Ivyrevel Carpetright: The retailer obtained a CVA in April to close 92 of its 409 UK stores in September with the loss of about 300 jobs.

Prezzo: In March the Italian-themed restaurant group secured a CVA to close 94 of its 300 restaurants, with the loss of 500 jobs. Rent cuts were agreed on a further 57 locations.

Jamie’s Italian: The chain closed six locations in 2017 and this year agreed a CVA to close about a third of its 35 loss-making outlets.

Byron: The troubled upmarket burger chain is closing up to 20 of its 67 restaurants after a CVA was agreed in January. Rent cuts have been agreed at a number of other locations.

Debenhams: The under-pressure department store chain wants to get rid of space at 30 of its 165 stores by bringing in gyms and other services. It has also said it may close up to eight stores.

M&S: The high street stalwart wants to close 100 outlets – a third of its main stores – by 2022 as part of a 'radical transformation' plan intended to tackle years of falling sales and profits.

Photograph: Jill Mead

The competition from retail rivals and other things to spend money on is writ large even on John Lewis’s doorstep: a couple of doors down is a vast Primark where a winter coat costs £25 and this season’s culottes just £13. Next door is “boutique” cycling studio FirstLight, where a 30ft magic mirror transports sweating spinners around the world.

John Lewis already offered personal styling but is upping the ante by giving over floor space to the self-contained style studios. Although not as plush as in designer stores such as Selfridges where multilingual helpers operate out of suites themed around muses such as pop icon Grace Jones, the space is comfortable and welcoming – not unlike the furniture department. Two studios have opened so far and a further three will follow.The service is also being upgraded in other stores.

But it’s not just women who want fashion advice. The store’s male stylist, Gursh Reandi, recounted his recent success with a retired soldier, whose wardrobe was found wanting when he started online dating. “He had the classic gentry vibe that comes with Sandhurst training but we brought his look up to date,” says Reandi, who previously ran his own fashion business in Essex, dressing Premier League footballers and the cast members from The Only Way Is Essex.

“My mind is a database so I can just tell,” Reandi explains of the mental feat that enables him to map a customer’s physique to the perfect pair of jeans. “He might be wearing jeans that are too straight a fit, which makes your legs look wider and shorter. They are conscious of not wanting to look like Joey Essex in spray-ons but you can’t confuse the words slim with skinny. It’s a different look altogether.”

Desperate price cutting by the stricken House of Fraser in the run up to last month’s financial rescue by Sports Direct has made life very difficult for John Lewis and Debenhams which has suffered a collapse in its share price. When the John Lewis Partnership reported its figures for the first six months of 2018, the eponymous department store chain was the red. But despite the red ink, sales on John Lewis’s fashion floors were up 1.2%, with womenswear ahead 4.1%.

Debenhams boss Sergio Bucher is following suit. This week he unveiled a new look store in Watford, offering personal styling, beauty makeovers and bars selling prosecco and gin and tonic, alongside its clothing ranges. The idea, he said, was to make shopping “a fun, leisure activity”.

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Stylist Lucy Knight styled-up writer Zoe Wood at John Lewis, Westfield. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

My very own personal stylist experience

The hot pink coat hanging on the clothes rail immediately set off alarm bells and threatened to confirm my instinct that seeking fashion advice in a mid-market department store could only end badly.

I write about shopping and shops everyday, and used to love fashion, but since becoming a mum have bought most of my clothes online. The prospect of being sized up by a stranger, even if they wanted to help, did not appeal.

But it turns out having a personal fashion slave at your disposal for a couple of hours is actually quite nice. At no point did anyone say “bangers” or aggressively hoik my bra straps and the stylist, LucyKnight, listened closely when I told her the brands I liked before scurrying off to gather outfits.

Like Pat Butcher, who stuck by her 80s makeup look, it’s easy to get stuck in a fashion rut. But Lucy patiently explained not all clothes have “hanger appeal” as I sniffed at a blue Hobbs dress emblazoned with red flowers.

I had tasked her with finding me a new winter coat and initially struck a bum note with a camel-coloured “coatigan” that made me look like a matryoshka doll. But under her guidance I was forced to reappraise the tailoring of high street brands such as Reiss (not just bandage dresses aimed at Kate Middleton types) and Ted Baker, which I’d written off when I turned 40. A slate-coloured Reiss pea coat fitted my shoulders neatly and, crucially, the straight cut did not make my bum look bigger. The more sensible khaki version could easily do for winter commuting on public transport.

The biggest revelation though, was when she popped out to get a pair of jeans to try on with the coat. Here we go, I thought, and sighed out loud. But to my amazement she came back with a pair of black Levis that fitted perfectly, sparing me what must be one of the most soul destroying shopping missions.

I never did try on the pink coat though.