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John Lewis: Looking back at 32 years of memories at the flagship Aberdeen department store

John Lewis Aberdeen pictured just before it opened in October 1989.
John Lewis Aberdeen pictured just before it opened in October 1989.

John Lewis has been a stalwart store in Aberdeen’s city centre since it opened its doors in 1989.

With its distinctive, stepped concrete exterior, the branch on George Street has been a popular shopping destination for more than three decades.

The Co-Operative Society’s Norco building was built in 1966 as a ‘Modernist showpiece’ after the original Victorian Co-op was demolished.

From the Editor: Time to make your voice heard and save John Lewis – and our city centre too

When John Lewis acquired the property in the late 1980s, it was described as a “golden opportunity” and became the brand’s northernmost branch as part of a multi-million-pound redevelopment.

The rippling exterior of the building remained, but a 70,000 sq ft extension and addition of a bridge joining onto the Bon Accord Centre, gave John Lewis a floorspace of around 200,000 sq ft.

The new department store also brought 700 full and part-time jobs to the city.

At the time, the retailer said “opening a store in Aberdeen was a symbolic gesture”.

Adding: “It might have been 543 miles from London, but it was proof that nothing was off limits.”

With a well-known reputation for quality and luxury, keen customers queued up excitedly ahead of the official opening on October 3 1989.

The retailer’s in-house magazine, the Gazette, said “the glistening aisles were soon swarming with intrigued customers” enjoying a new, high-end shopping experience in Aberdeen.

The first customer to pass through the doors was Margaret McGregor, right, who lived round the corner on St Andrew Street and felt she deserved to be first in the queue after putting up with months of building work.

With its slogan ‘never knowingly undersold’, customers were promised quality, value and competitive prices over several floors at John Lewis’ George Street branch.

A flagship in the north of Scotland, people would travel from places like Inverness to spend a day enjoying some retail therapy at the department store.

A long-standing name on the British high street, John Lewis opened its first store – a small drapery – on London’s Oxford Street in 1864.

The brand absorbed Peter Jones in 1904 before establishing its pioneering ‘partner scheme’ in the 1920s – a revolution for retail.

Kim Lowe general manager John Lewis Aberdeen, front left, with staff member Kenny Laird of supply chain who opened the envelope to reveal the staff bonus percentage in 2010.

The experimental move saw stakeholder staff getting a say in how the business was run, as well as receiving a slice of the success in stocks.

Described as “ahead of its time” in the 1920s, John Lewis remains the largest employee-owned business in the UK today.

Margaret Watt, one of the Aberdeen store’s longest-serving partners, pictured in 2009.

The company even set up its own free medical service for employees in 1929, before the NHS was founded 19 years later.

In 1970, a change was made so the partners’ bonus was received in cash instead of cash and stocks like previous decades.

A look back in our archives shows how customers have been spoilt for choice for 32 years when it comes to clothing, homewares, cosmetics – and first-class customer service.

The Aberdeen store has seen many changes over the years and welcomed new brands, as well as undergoing redesigns.

In 1997 it expanded its homeware offerings with a new kitchen department, which did a roaring trade in the weeks before Christmas that year.

And keeping up with the times, John Lewis stepped into the world of e-commerce, launching its website in 2001.

With an extensive collection of menswear and womenswear, the shop would often host fashion shows and charity events in aid of local causes.

While the haberdashery occupied a large corner of the ground floor, with racks of colourful fabrics and balls of wool a welcoming sight as shoppers stepped in from the grey street.

And for those who shopped until they dropped, there was always a welcome cup of tea and a fine piece available at the shop’s cafes.

Head of the branch Robert Garnish and co-founder of Benugo Ben Warner, toasted the opening of the new Benugo coffee shop instore in 2017.

For many people it didn’t feel like Christmas until John Lewis had launched its festive displays.

In 2005, the Evening Express’ own Scott Begbie dressed up as Santa and helped out as a partner during the Christmas rush.

While in more recent years, the retailer’s Christmas shop has been a must-visit in December, with its beautifully decorated trees, boxes of baubles and shelves of tempting toys bringing seasonal joy.

Being in the heart of the city, the local community was important to the staff at John Lewis.

The children of Middlefield Community Group said a big thank you to the store’s toy department for the donation of fun Christmas presents in 2004.

And in 2011, staff pulled on their lycra for a seven-hour Zumba dance in the Bon Accord Centre to raise money for the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Appeal.

In 2012, the athletic action continued when a dedicated London 2012 merchandise unit was unveiled to back Team GB as Britain hosted the Olympics.

Youngsters from Kittybrewster Primary helped then managing director Rob Holder cut the ribbon on the Olympic shop, which was one of only 27 launched outside London.

Pupils from Kittybrewster Primary School were back in 2019, this time members of the choir helped John Lewis Aberdeen celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Sadly just a few months later, the store was forced to close when non-essential retail was shut down in March 2020 to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

However, many of the kind-hearted employees on furlough took on roles volunteering with the NHS.

There were smiles all round, not least from branch manager Jamie Wishart, when the shop reopened last summer with new social distancing precautions in place.

But like the rest of non-essential retail it was forced to close again in January and it is now proposed that it remains shut permanently.

The news comes after the recent announcement that Aberdeen’s Debenhams would never reopen its Trinity Centre premises.

It will now join a long list of popular retailers assigned to the history books of Aberdeen, such as the much-loved homegrown brand Esslemont and Macintosh.