“Going to Leeds was far bigger than the academic experience,” says Peter Cross (French and Management 1988), who admits spending his teens among “comfortable, like-minded, middle-class people” in Buckinghamshire. “What I really needed was a bit of the school of life.”
Now, as Customer Experience Director at John Lewis, Peter shapes the look, feel and customer journey at both the department store and its supermarket stablemate Waitrose.
He regards the University as the place where he discovered who he really was. “I’d never been exposed to the richness of life and humanity before Leeds,” he says. “I learned to laugh out loud, which I’d never really done before. Leeds brought me myself.”
A member of many student societies – including theatre, where he was “hopeless” opposite classics student and future TV star Tracy-Ann Oberman in Marat/Sade – Peter also signed up for the Management Society, whose Freshers’ Week stall was beside the GaySoc stand. “I was gay,” he says, “but I hadn’t really admitted it to anyone, including myself.”
There followed a comic sequence in which Peter volunteered an interest “on behalf of a friend”. Happily, things worked out and the student on the stall became his first partner.
As part of his course, Peter spent a year in Paris working for Burberry. He says: “It was the best year of my life, learning about luxury marketing and selling posh raincoats in the most beautiful building right next to La Madeleine.”
Fascinated by high-end marketing, after Leeds he spent ten years at L’Oréal then joined Alfred Dunhill, before forming a partnership with retail guru Mary Portas. “I’ve always liked big, bold projects,” he says. “Why scrape through it when you can make it the biggest and the best and the most exciting?”
The Residence at John Lewis - the ultimate try before you buy experience.
In 2013, he joined John Lewis, where his goal is to “join up” the shopping journey. “It’s about making the whole experience as great and inspiring as it can possibly be. It’s about watching out for the pain points, innovating, bringing insight and creating magical moments.”
Recognising that shopping competes with a crowded menu of entertainment, headlines need to be grabbed. In 2017, Peter’s team showcased John Lewis homeware at The Residence – real, functioning, luxury apartments in their Oxford Street, Liverpool and Cambridge stores. Customers could see the stores’ ranges in context, and lucky winners could stay overnight, sleeping in the beds and using the appliances.
“We want shops to be increasingly inspirational, so why not create the ultimate ‘Try Before You Buy’ experiment? It got a few surprised glances,” he admits, “especially when last night’s guests were waking up as the stores opened – but it really worked.” Some 30,000 people applied to sleep in a John Lewis store, making front-page news.
“The high street is about more than shopping,” says Peter. In 2011, he joined his long-time friend Mary Portas in her renowned review of the British high street, which proposed a range of remedies to the hollowing out of town centres. “It should be the hub and social identity of the community. In a country that’s divided and uncomfortable with itself right now, a place where people can come together is surely more important than ever for our wellbeing.”
Peter remains close to the people he met as an undergraduate at Leeds. “They changed my life forever. They never let you get away with anything and that gives you an incredible balance and perspective. When I’m with them, I’m 18 years old again.”
Peter is a Leader in Residence at the Leeds University Business School, volunteering his time to share his business expertise and insights with students, through mentoring discussions and networking sessions.