John Kempner, vision buyer at John Lewis, retires this month, after more than 40 years in the CE industry. In an exclusive interview with Sean Hannam at the retailer’s new £33 million London store in Westfield, White City, he looks back on his career, picks out some tech highlights and low points and offers some advice on selling the smart home…
Q: How did you first get into the CE industry?
John Kempner: It’s in my genes. When I left university in 1977, I joined Alba. My great-grandfather, Alfred Balcombe, founded Alba in 1917, as a radio manufacturing company. He created the brand name by taking the first two letters from Alfred (Al) and Balcombe (Ba), spelling Alba.
My father and my uncle were the joint managing directors. A few years later, there was a move away from small UK companies and brands to big Japanese corporations.
In 1982, Alba was bought by Harvard International – that was when I left, but it was a good introduction to the industry.
Q: Have you always been a fan of technology?
JK: Yes, partly because of the family connection. We were doing quite a lot of importing from the Far East – I was buying in Asia from a young age. I loved it and, in 1982, I was lucky enough to get a job at Currys, in the pre-Dixons days. They were looking for someone to buy and source their own-brand radios, clock radios, portable audio and all in-one hi-fi systems.
When Currys was bought by Dixons, I was offered the opportunity to work in the Hong Kong sourcing office for three years.
Q: How was that?
JK: I loved it – it accelerated the process of my getting married. I’d been dating a young lady – who is now my wife – for a year or so – and then being invited to work in Hong Kong brought forward a decision that, hopefully, would’ve been made anyway. We’ve now been married for over 30 years.
It was a very exciting time to be in Hong Kong. There was so much happening. Dixons and Currys were dominant in the market and had a powerful buying position. I learned a lot about how factories work and the supply chain.
Q: You joined John Lewis in 1994…
JK: The opportunity came up and it was something I really wanted to do.
Q: Was it a culture shock moving from Dixons?
JK: They were very different retailers – polar opposites in their culture and in the way they went about doing their business.
Q: At that time, John Lewis wasn’t such a major player in electricals, was it?
JK: Correct. What’s changed since I’ve been at John Lewis is that we’re now a serious electrical retailer. When I joined, electricals was a big department, but nothing like the size it is today.
Now we split our business between fashion, home and electricals, but when I joined, electricals sat within the home area.
What I enjoyed about my move to John Lewis was that what you see on the outside, as a customer, is absolutely what you see on the inside – we are a very caring, warm, open and honest business. That’s how we treat our partners [staff] – there’s a feeling of belonging.
I was made to feel very welcome and I very quickly found myself in a position of trust. I could get on with my buying role unencumbered by a lot of the politics that can happen in other businesses. It was a breath of fresh air.
Q: Were you ever tempted to join the white-goods sector?
JK: No. Over the years, I’ve thought about moving and there were discussions, but, to be honest, I’ve absolutely loved my time managing and buying this category. There are always new and exciting products and opportunities to try things. Why would you want to go anywhere else, frankly? I think it’s fantastic and I’ve been very lucky to have been working in this industry for the time I have.
Q: What’s kept you in the industry for so long?
JK: It’s the excitement of new products – the development just gets faster and faster and sometimes it’s surprising, which is the fun thing.
When I started in the industry, a large-screen TV was 28 inches, CRT and 4:3. It was a huge box that you could watch three channels on – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV – and the picture quality wasn’t very good. What’s happened over the years is unrecognisable. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you couldn’t have imagined what products we’d be selling today, with one exception – the Roberts Radio Revival.
Q: Is the electricals market challenging?
JK: Yes, I think most retail markets are. It’s definitely difficult. Online was a massive change – the good thing about retailers who have got physical shops is that they have an opportunity to properly demonstrate products, so consumers can understand what they’re capable of.
You can’t really understand TV picture or sound quality on a website – you can’t get the excitement or the real benefits. We can add value and customers need help with technology.
It’s all about the customer and seeing things through their eyes. We have to give them something more, which could be knowledge or expertise, or talk about something that they can understand.
As an industry, we want more people to buy consumer electronics, but we’re guilty of getting ourselves wrapped up in technology and jargon – we’re not very good at finding ways to describe products and benefits.
With smart-home products, if you can sell them properly, there’s the opportunity to sell across a lot of different categories and add on many other lines.
Q: Is today’s electrical market the toughest it’s ever been?
JK: It certainly feels like it. There’s the online issue and we’re all aware of what everyone else is doing – there’s no hiding place. If we’re not careful, it can be a race to the bottom in terms of price, which isn’t healthy in an industry where fantastic technology is sold at a lower price than the previous year. The costs for retailers who are managing shops are always going up. It’s about how you add value to products and sales – you have to be customer-focused, rather than industry, or technology, focused.
Q: How do you see the future of TV tech? What’s your view of 8K?
JK: As people are buying bigger screens, it’s something that’s certainly going to happen, but whether we’ll see the real benefits of 8K over 4K will depend on the content providers and people’s viewing habits.
We’re all pushing ever-bigger screens, but I guess there’s going to come a time when customers will say, ‘I don’t want one that’s bigger than that’. Maybe you will start seeing the benefits of 8K at 75in, but much smaller than that, I very much doubt it.
Q: Is the smart home an area that appeals to you personally?
JK: It’s interesting and it’s important – we all talk about it and a lot more products with IoT and connected capabilities are coming out. We’ve got to work out how the smart home will improve customers’ lives – not ‘this is the latest thermostat’…
It’s about how we manage that communication. The important thing is to be able to talk about the benefits – why you would want it? The majority of people will be questioning what it’s all about. What is a smart home?
I think ‘smart home’ is a helpful name for it today, but we will eventually have to move away from that and it will just become the future of the way in which these products work. There will be a whole change in the way we interact with them and the smart home is the beginning of that conversation.
It’s very exciting – it’s not just a few technology products, it’s a bigger story.
Q: What will you miss most when you leave the industry?
JK: The buzz – I will miss the new products and hearing about the latest thing. I will certainly miss the interaction with people whom I regard as good friends.
Q: How are you going to spend your retirement and will you keep your eye on the industry?
JK: The first thing I’m going to do is to improve my golf handicap. Inevitably, I will probably watch what’s going on in the industry, because it’s what I know and love. Hopefully I’ll start getting some other interests, so I don’t drive myself completely nuts by worrying about things that I can’t influence anymore.
Ups and downs
John Kempner talks us through some of the tech highlights and lowlights he’s seen in his time in the CE sector: “I’m excited by the big moments – some of them worked and some of them didn’t…”
Compact Disc: “That was a big one – it was the biggest jump. I’d like to think we all strongly believed in it. The advantage of a CD over vinyl or cassette was huge – its ability to withstand a reasonable amount of wear and tear, and the sound quality – albeit vinyl is now having a resurgence.”
MiniDisc: “That wasn’t such a big jump [as CD] – it was an interim product – but MiniDisc was great because it was small and portable and you could record on to it.”
Digital radio [DAB]: “That was a very significant moment – it was exciting and it created new brands. If only we could switchover to digital radio, that would be a terrific boost.”
Flat-panel TV: “It redefined how we viewed television.”
Digital TV switchover: “Not only did it provide significant incremental demand for TVs over a three-year period, but it really showed the important role that retailers play within the CE industry.
“This period gave us all the opportunity to successfully deliver a huge uplift in TV and set-top box sales.”
Smart TV: “Suddenly content became important. The benefit of smart TV was huge – it turned the TV into something much more significant because you could access content at anytime.”
Sony losing out to Apple in audio: “The Sony Walkman was the strongest and best-selling portable audio product in the ’70s and ’80s. After the Sony Discman and Mini Disc, MP3 came along, pretty much overnight, Sony missed it and Apple changed the market. That was a real defining moment in the audio industry. Suddenly Apple changed the way people consumed and listened to audio.”
3D TV: “At the time, we [John Lewis] got excited by it. I don’t think we were as excited as some others, but it was a new technology and we supported it. It soon became obvious that it wasn’t the way that people wanted to watch TV.”