Another attack on a much-loved institution

The John Lewis department store, opened in Cardiff in 2009 to loud rejoicing from those paid to rejoice loudly, is the cornerstone of the city’s shop-till-you-drop economy.  The massively profitable London-based company* likes to occupy capitalism’s cuddly quarter with its mutual status and employee profit-sharing scheme (don’t mention the refusal to recognise trade unions), and has somehow wheedled its way into mass consciousness with unbearably smug advertising campaigns insinuating that giving your money to the boring shop amounts to a noble act of unconditional love.  But, as with so many of the UK’s “national treasures”, when you look beneath the superficial veneer you come upon a hollow husk.  John Lewis is long overdue for a debunking – and I’m the man for the job.

Look no further than the company’s famous slogan: “Never Knowingly Undersold”.   What could it possibly mean?  Can you decipher it? Let’s have a go. As it contains a double negative (the “never” and the “under..”) it is immediately problematic.  Leaving the ungainly adverb “knowingly” to one side for a moment, if clarity was the intention the two minuses would simply be converted into a single plus, making the declaration something like:  “Oversold”.  To “oversell” means “to sell more of a commodity than can be supplied”, or “to use overly aggressive methods to achieve a sale”, or “to exaggerate the merits of a commodity”.  All three actions would be illegal under consumer protection, trades description and fraud laws, and to crow about it would be commercial suicide, so that can’t possibly be what those nice folks at John Lewis are trying to communicate.

Let me try again.  Since John Lewis are the ones doing the selling, it can only be they who never get up to any underselling. To undersell is “to sell for less than the usual price”, “to sell at a price lower than that of another seller”, or “to advertise with moderation and restraint” – practices that sound good to me. But John Lewis assures us these are bad things that it never does.  That doesn’t make any sense either.

Ah, I see where I’m going wrong.  “Undersold” is being used as an intransitive past participle!  Most irregular, seeing as though “sell” is a transitive verb, but we’ll let that pass.  So it is not John Lewis that never does any of this underselling lark; it is John Lewis that is never undersold to.  Hmm: they are telling us they only stock what is overpriced, overrated and unavailable.  No, no, that can’t be right.

I suppose the best thing to do is to find out what the “Partnership” itself says about the slogan, adopted back in 1925.  Long pause (in cybertime) while I Google the matter.  Got it: “if a customer can buy the same item cheaper elsewhere we will refund the difference”.  Oh I see, “undersold” simply means “undercut”…I suppose that explains why John Lewis is the cheapest shop of all…

Uhh…I’m sorry, but that’s so very wrong.  We all know the upmarket chain is, if anything, one of the dearest places to shop, its target demographic the well-heeled middle and upper classes who find it appealing precisely because the great unwashed are priced out. So the company’s founding principle and ringing mission statement for the past 88 years, the most celebrated pledge in retailing, is just a blatantly misleading untruth.  Why am I the first to point this out?  What am I missing?

Ah! Fool that I am! Of course: it’s the “knowingly” that makes all the difference.   The Nuremburg Defence with a touch of the Pontius Pilate!  I’m sorry I committed that murder, M’Lud, but I didn’t know murder was illegal – can I go now?  What a neat, all-purpose cop-out clause to render any guarantee worthless!   If I were to go to John Lewis tomorrow with, say, a £1 pair of socks from Poundland demanding they give me the £3 extra that their identical cheapest cotton socks would cost, they can just say, no doubt with a knowing smirk, “we didn’t know”.  End of conversation.  That categorical, bumptious “never” is turned upside down: “Never, except when we say otherwise” in effect boils down to, well, “always”.  The great John Lewis achievement is to pioneer this marketing double-speak, paving the way for today’s universal carpet-bombing of unblushing corporate lies where “Half Price Sale!” has come to mean “Usual Price” and nobody bats an eyelid.

To summarise.  “Never Knowingly Undersold” is nothing more than an entirely meaningless string of letters – and upon this feeble filament of pure bullshit the John Lewis Partnership has conquered Middle England (which includes suburban Cardiff).  It figures.  Now can I go?

* Founded in Oxford Street, London, in 1864 by curmudgeonly Somerset draper John Lewis (1836-1928).