AT TIMES yesterday, it felt like I'd walked into a heaving AGM of Exeter's John Lewis fan club. Practically everyone I met during my five hours at the city centre's new department store were raving about what a great brand John Lewis is, how their parents loved it and so do they, how they'd travelled vast distances to be at the official opening of the 38th branch, how they could get nearly everything – including a Franke Galassia kitchen sink – across the store's six floors and that it had brought quality, choice and competitive pricing to Exeter.
Mind you, this never knowingly undersold euphoria began to dissipate slightly after some customers – myself included – discovered that the store's main toilets are located on the top floor and, at one stage, you couldn't access them easily due to the huge queues for the restaurant. Then even the staunchest John Lewis fan was tested when the ground floor escalator broke down, followed by the lower ground floor and top floor being evacuated and closed after a water pipe burst. Undoubtedly these were teething first-day problems but once sorted, the new John Lewis store should be a winner for Exeter…
Pauline Roberts from Bude and her grand-daughter Jemma Gill from Exeter certainly thought so. Keen John Lewis fans, they'd arrived at 8am to be the very first in the queue, an hour ahead of the store's official opening. Why were they were here so early?
"Maybe other people are probably brighter than we are, because it's cold, isn't it?" said Jemma, shivering slightly. "They're probably still in their pyjamas in bed."
Were they looking for anything in particular?
"No. Just window shopping."
"And just to see what a beautiful store it's going to be," said Pauline. "I love John Lewis. My grand-daughter and I used to go to Bristol purposely to go to John Lewis, so when it came to Exeter we thought 'This is going to be wonderful!'"
Further up the queue were some equally enthusiastic members of the John Lewis fan club.
"My family has been a fan of John Lewis for some years," said Lizzy Underhill of St Thomas, Exeter. "My parents live near the Cribbs Causeway store at Bristol, so every time we go to Cribbs, we go to John Lewis. The haberdashery department is a big favourite in my family. It's a fantastic store. I love it!"
Her friend Sam Bishop of Exeter agreed.
"I'm from Plymouth originally and we've not got one down there and we haven't had one here, so it's the nearest one for us and it's quite exciting to be able to see that."
But 8am is quite an early start. Why didn't you wait until 10am?
Lizzy: "We've both got to go to work! We've changed our shifts so we could come – that's our dedication!"
Another shopper wondered if queuing early might pay dividends. "I was hoping that the first 100 here would get a free Apple Mac," said Louise Pamment, laughing, "but I thought I'd come anyway! You never know… perhaps they'll let us in early."
Louise had just moved into a new house in Dawlish. "Good timing!" she said. "I'm looking for kitchenware, some nice knives! All my kitchen utensils have been battered in the move. But even though people associate John Lewis with being expensive, actually they've got their price match, so it should be fine…"
Sue Dodson from Colaton Raleigh was in the queue with her daughter Becca Smith and grand-son Findlay.
"I think it's the best thing to happen to Exeter since Princesshay," said Sue. "It's huge for Devon. I shop at John Lewis a lot and it saves me having to hack up and down the motorway to Bristol. We think they should get every support, so we're here to do that and hopefully be pretty near the front of the queue through the door."
Nearly opening time
Back at the front of the queue, it was nearly opening time. A frantic scrum of reporters, photographers, video camera operatives, bloggers and other shoppers were surrounding Pauline Roberts and Jemma Gill. Had all the fuss got a bit silly?
"No it's fantastic!" said Jemma. "It's a really nice atmosphere. John Lewis have even taken our names, so you never know…"
At 9am precisely, the ribbon was cut by representatives from three local charities that John Lewis supports (Community Matters, St Petrock's, FORCE Cancer Charity and Balloons).
Helping them was Mrs Joan Monaghan from Branscombe, near Seaton. Having worked at Cole Brothers [a John Lewis store in Sheffield] between 1944 and 1952, Joan was delighted to be a part of the grand opening. She had championed for a shop to open in the Exeter area since moving to Devon 16 years ago.
"I used to pester the Sheffield and Bristol branches, saying 'Why can't we have a shop in Exeter?'" she confided later on. "I don't say that I'm the reason that they've opened it, but I used to pester quite a lot, and then I sent them my picture of Cole Brothers in Sheffield from 1944 and my rule book, and they were so interested that I've been writing to them regularly. And then I got the letter to say would I cut the ribbon today?"
With the ribbon cut, the crowds flooded in to the new department store on Sidwell Street, serenaded by the sweet swing sounds of dapperly dressed Kevin, crooning to a backing tape. He kept it up for a good three hours, which was nearly as long as the ground-floor escalator.
Making a dash
I made a dash for the men's department and technology, lower ground floor. In among the glitzy cameras, laptops, mobiles, widescreen TVs and hi-fi hullabaloo, I encountered Richard Maskrey from Branscombe. What brought him in today?
"Just to see really, what with Christmas coming up. It's a new store isn't it? It's quite exciting. It offers good service, a great selection of things and it's upmarket for Exeter. The city needed something a bit more quality – quality clothes, quality products generally all the way round. Well done!"
Brian Kay from Exeter was equally pleased with what he described as the "Taj Mahal" of Exeter, but was slightly more pragmatic.
"It's a beautiful store," he said. "All we've got to do is work out how we're all going to get some bl***y money! I reckon a penny in your pocket this year will be worth nothing next year… the economy's looking pretty grim."
Up in babyware and nursery on the third floor, David and Martha Jefferies from Exeter were also looking at pennies, but had already shelled out on a Peter Rabbit book. "We're just having a look around," said David. "We're expecting our first child, so we thought we'd come and have a look at this section and see what's about."
Was John Lewis good for them?
"Definitely. It shows that Exeter is getting better and better all the time. It's an up-and-coming city."
"I love John Lewis," said Martha, "so I'll be back!"
Manna from heaven
Those words would have been manna from heaven for Kate Connock, the Exeter store manager. "It's been a fabulous morning," she said. "We're not yet an hour after opening, but there's been a great response from customers as I've been stood by the door, welcoming them. We've had so many positive comments about the fact that at last John Lewis is on the Exeter High Street."
Kate has worked for John Lewis for 22 years, starting in the Bristol branch as a kitchenware selling assistant. Did she ever think she'd be opening the 38th John Lewis store?
"No, this is all my Christmases come at once! It's an absolute honour and privilege to be responsible for opening a branch. It's way beyond my wildest dreams.
"Since arriving in the city, I've been so warmly welcomed by everybody I've met. There's a real warmth to the John Lewis brand. People are prepared to travel 50 to 60 miles to get to us. Evidence and research shows that it increases the footfall for any city that we're part of. I'm absolutely sure – and what we've seen today in terms of the level of interest from customers – is that people are committed to us."
John Harvey, Exeter City Centre manager, was also delighted by that commitment. "The arrival of John Lewis to Exeter is incredibly important for the city centre," he said. "The brand is so strong, it will draw in huge numbers of shoppers from a wider catchment area. You just need to look at the crowds today to understand how popular John Lewis is. And because it will draw in increased numbers to the city centre, we'll see those additional shoppers delivering a benefit for other businesses across the city centre, so independent businesses, large businesses, small café's, chain restaurants, will all benefit from this.
"John Lewis will also add additional investment in the city centre. Since the announcement was made on the store, we've seen a surge of other new-name retailers come in to the city. So good news, all round. It's a new dawn for the city centre."
What was he tempted to buy?
"Well, my problem is that too many things – like lots of boys' toys – take my fancy. I can see that it would be a terribly dangerous place for me to spend much of my time in, in terms of how popular I would be with my bank manager… you feel my pain, don't you?
"But seriously, I think John Lewis is going to be incredibly popular. This army of people that we're seeing in the store at the moment is just going to grow and grow."
View from the top
Maureen Low from Exeter was a valiant member of that army. She'd battled her way, via a 20-minute queue, to the top-floor restaurant.
"I can see the John Lewis from my house, so I thought I'd come and see the view of my house from the top floor restaurant at John Lewis!" she declared triumphantly. "We decided that we'd have something to eat today, because we think the crowds will be worse tomorrow. It all looks very good. It's going to be lovely for the young folks who are setting up homes."
Carol Markson had travelled from further afield, spending just over an hour getting to the store from outside Totnes. Why?
"Because it was the opening day. It's been a long time coming and it's been worth the wait. It's fabulous, isn't it?"
Some people got here at 8am…
"I'm 100% in favour of that, I'd be the same if I didn't have to come from a distance to do it! It's absolutely brilliant. I love John Lewis. I've been looking forward to this day for a long, long time."
And what of those very first people in the queue – Pauline Roberts from Bude and her grand-daughter Jemma Gill?
"We presented them with a bottle of champagne, a bouquet of flowers, a warm welcome and thanks for them turning up and committing to us this morning," said store manager Kate Connock. "They had travelled quite a distance to get here. I've just met another mother and daughter who are staying in Exeter for the weekend because they wanted to be here for our opening, but I'm sure that they are just a couple of examples of many people who have waited a very long time for this."
And with that she was off, to sort out the store's broken escalator and the burst water pipe…