The End of Never Knowingly Undersold

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There has been much hand wringing in recent days after rumours emerged that John Lewis is to retire its long established and much loved slogan: “Never knowingly undersold.”

The slogan first appeared in 1925, but the idea was put into practice much earlier, at the very first John Lewis shop, which opened on Oxford Street in 1864.

The explanation of what the slogan meant back then was supremely confident, simple and compelling: “If you can buy more cheaply elsewhere anything you have just bought from us, we will refund the difference.”

What was not to like?

Customers could buy from John Lewis with confidence. And – as John Lewis grew into a retail giant – it could demand the best prices from its suppliers, reducing the risk of being undersold in the first place.

But that was then and this is now.

Today “Never knowingly undersold” comes with so many caveats it risks appearing evasive.

John Lewis will still match the price of its “high street competitors”, but buried in the small print are get out clauses about “businesses that trade on a different basis to John Lewis” such as “outlets that operate only on the internet or through mail-order, showrooms attached to internet-only companies, pop-up or temporary shops, collection points, auction sites, factory outlets, membership clubs, duty-free shops, market stalls or home shopping channels.”

The retail landscape is vastly more complex in 2020 than it was in 1925.

For “never knowingly undersold” to work in today’s environment requires a kind of mutual understanding based on trust between the retailer and customer that both sides will be reasonable.

This is the very human approach the Sunderland based outdoor clothing brand, Berghaus, has taken with its Product Lifetime Guarantee.

“If we find a genuine fault or defect in your item that shouldn’t be there based on normal use, then we’ll repair or replace it for free – no questions asked,” the company states. “But, if that 20-year-old jacket of yours has seen more summits than hot dinners, then it might be time to buy a new one!”

You cannot say fairer than that.


A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.
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