Sainsbury’s has hired the former boss of John Lewis Paula Nickolds to take charge of its near £8bn clothing and homewares division, in a move that underlines it ambitions to make its larger outlets feel like department stores.
Sainsbury’s said Nickolds, who will join its operating board, would be responsible for the commercial success of its £7.8bn general merchandise and clothing arm which includes the catalogue chain Argos and Habitat, as well as its Tu clothing.
The senior role is a coup for Nickolds who left John Lewis at the start of 2020 after a troubled three-year reign during which the department store chain’s profits fell sharply. Nickolds, who joined the John Lewis Partnership straight out of university, was the department store chain’s first female managing director.
Sainsbury has previously signalled its larger outlets would start to look more like department stores as it used its portfolio of brands to offer more services and non-food. The more upmarket feel is seen as a way to differentiate its stores from the fast-growing discount chains Aldi and Lidl.
Simon Roberts, Sainsbury’s chief executive, described Nickolds as a “highly respected, talented and experienced retail leader” with “deep experience in product, brands and commercial leadership”.
Nickolds worked for employee-owned John Lewis for 25 years. She joined as a graduate trainee and worked in product, buying, brand and commercial before becoming managing director in 2017.
Nickolds, who starts next month, said Sainsbury’s was a retailer with “fantastic heritage that is trusted by customers for its great combination of quality and value”. She is taking over the reins from Mike Luck, who the company said was leaving to pursue a career outside Sainsbury’s after an 18-year stint at the grocer.
Last month, Sainsbury’s reported a £261m annual loss despite booming sales of groceries during the pandemic. The loss was blamed on expensive Covid safety measures in its stores as well as substantial restructuring costs relating to the planned closure of more than 400 Argos standalone stores.
Its slide into the red came after it joined other supermarkets in returning millions of pounds of business rates relief after criticism. Sainsbury’s paid back £440m of the property tax relief last year. The company also paid a final dividend as “shareholders should not bear the full short-term impact of the effect of Covid-19 on the business”.