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TCW’s top twenty, 2023: Waitrose – going woke, going broke under Dame Empty-Shelves

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From today we are running TCW’s top twenty most read articles of the year, in reverse order and ending on New Year’s Eve with number 1. It is clear from the many amongst them that are Covid-related how important our no-holds-barred investigative journalism and commentary have been to readers, and how deeply concerned they are about the implications of the scale of  the deceit we have been subjected to. Today’s number 20, however, reports on another aspect of the post-lockdown, woke world. It was first published on June 15. 

ON Friday June 9, I received an email from Waitrose telling me to ‘Get ready to celebrate Pride’.

Boasting about Waitrose’s woke credentials, it said: ‘It’s Pride month, and we’re looking forward to celebrating with family, friends and colleagues – and of course, delicious food and drink! At Waitrose and John Lewis, we’re committed to inclusion – and our LGBTQIA+ network, Pride in the Partnership, is always busy. So far this year, we’ve celebrated LGBTQIA+ History month in February and International Trans Day of Visibility in March with events and educational packs for Partners.’

I was reminded of a job ad for a Diversity, Inclusion and Equality assistant for Lincoln Community Health Services NHS Trust which I included in an article I recently wrote for TCW. The responsibilities included: ‘Set up meetings, facilitate arrangements for EDI celebration weeks and days (to include Black History Month, LGBT+ History Month, Carers week and International Women’s Day’.

I imagine all Waitrose stores will be festooned with Gay Pride rainbow banners and suchlike. Well, I guess they need something to put in their stores as many shelves seem rather empty.

Waitrose recently ‘upgraded’ their IT systems. Chaos ensued. One tech website reported: ‘A bungled system update has left the chain’s stores with a shortage of fresh produce, while customers have also reported problems using its app and securing slots for deliveries. Waitrose, which is part of John Lewis, has 329 stores across the UK. Customers started reporting problems over the May Bank Holiday weekend. A system update took longer than expected, which interfered with the delivery of fresh produce.

Tech Monitor has contacted Waitrose to find out more information, but a spokesperson for the chain told the Daily Telegraph on Friday that the problem had been fixed. “We’re really sorry for the disruption that some customers faced. We’ve fixed the cause of the problem, and have regular daily deliveries going to all our branches,” the spokesperson said. “Many shops now have good availability, and we’re addressing localised issues as quickly as possible”.’

I went to a large Waitrose store on Monday and I can assure you that ‘the cause of the problem’ has not been fixed – more than half of the everyday items I wanted to buy were unavailable. The shelves were empty.

That brings us to John Lewis chairman Dame Sharon White, whom I have affectionately dubbed ‘Empty-Shelves’ White. According to Wikipedia, Dame Sharon has had a stellar career: ‘White worked for a church in Birmingham before joining the British civil service in 1989. She worked first at the Treasury and later for the British Embassy in Washington. She also worked at the 10 Downing Street policy unit during the Blair Government, at the World Bank, and as a director general at the Department for International Development in 2003-09 and then at the Ministry of Justice in 2009-11, and also at the Department for Work and Pensions.

‘In December 2014, it was announced that White would be the chief executive of Ofcom from March 2015. In June 2019, it was announced that White would be stepping down from her role at Ofcom to take a position as the sixth Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership. It was confirmed that White will be awarded an annual salary of £990,000 for her role at the John Lewis Partnership, a significant increase on her previous salary, which was £341,700 according to data released by Ofcom.’

Readers will have noticed that all Dame Sharon’s previous jobs were in public-sector organisations where you tend to be handed huge sums of taxpayers’ money for what many of us wouldn’t describe as ‘work’. Most of the other people leading British retailers and supermarkets have spent their lives in retail and have a vast amount of retail experience. As far as I can see, Dame Sharon has never had to do the difficult job of providing anything that a customer might want to buy at a price he or she would be willing to pay.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a company bringing in a new boss with a new perspective and new ideas. But on ‘new ideas’ Dame Sharon has form. At Ofcom she established herself as the BBC’s quota enforcer, threatening broadcasters who didn’t meet her stringent and mandatory diversity targets with huge fines, and forcing all recruiting staff to undertake diversity and ‘unconscious bias’ training. 

In her latest incarnation White has, I believe, suggested destroying the John Lewis partnership structure by bringing in new investors who will want to be paid dividends every year and building flats above or instead of stores. Before coming up with brilliant ideas, it could be useful if the new boss could prove she is capable of successfully running the basic business for which she is responsible. However, Retail Gazette reported in March: ‘John Lewis Partnership has plunged to a loss of £234million and admitted it could not afford to pay staff their traditional annual bonus.’ 

Last week Retail Gazette said White has pledged to return the group to profit before 2026, adding that staff bonuses would return only ‘when affordable’. Dame Sharon is quoted as saying her recovery plan would create ‘a broadly based business with brilliant retail at the core, built on excellent customer service, quality and ethics’. I believe the grand idea includes swingeing cost-cutting, which usually means getting rid of loyal staff so the big boss can get a massive bonus.

A cynic might wonder if John Lewis’s and Waitrose’s current problems are yet another example of the cliché ‘go woke, go broke’. A nasty cynic might even wonder if ‘Empty-Shelves’ White is following ladies such as Dame Cressida Dick at the failed Metropolitan Police, Amanda Pritchard (who no doubt will also soon be a ‘Dame’) at the collapsing NHS and Alison Saunders at the useless Crown Prosecution Service, who have possibly been hired more for their wokeness and diversity credentials than for their experience or abilities. I’m not a nasty cynic so I would never suggest anything like that.

I visit a shop to buy stuff, not to be bombarded with the latest woke garbage by shouty minorities. So I won’t be going back to Waitrose for some time, if ever.

Footnote, December 2023: In October, Dame Sharon White announced that she would be stepping down from her role at John Lewis Partnership.

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David Craig
David Craig
David Craig's latest book THERE IS NO CLIMATE CRISIS is available as a paperback or ebook from Amazon

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