Relationship Marketing & Marketin 97: Delivering the goods/Customer service is the key to the success of Lakeland, the mail-order kitchenware company, to the extent that marketing chief Julian Rayner positively encourages customers to call him up. R

Many much larger companies would do well to take a leaf out of Lakeland’s book. This not-so-big, family-owned mail-order firm, specialising in kitchenware and based in the Lake District, has a simple but powerful philosophy: under-promise and over-deliver.

Many much larger companies would do well to take a leaf out of

Lakeland’s book. This not-so-big, family-owned mail-order firm,

specialising in kitchenware and based in the Lake District, has a simple

but powerful philosophy: under-promise and over-deliver.

Browsing through the company’s small catalogues and customer leaflets,

you feel you are entering a cosy club of like-minded souls, rather than

yet another look-alike retail experience. New staff members are proudly

introduced, alongside pictures of the different Lakeland departments -

from senior management to customer services to packing and dispatch.

’We’ve found over the years that it’s very important for our customers

to know about the people processing their order,’ says Julian Rayner,

marketing director and one of the triumvirate of brothers at the helm of

Lakeland. Their father, Alan Rayner, started the business.

This personal touch was put to the test recently when the company

finally sloughed off the ugly, industrial half of its name. Since 1964,

when it was founded as a manufacturer of polythene freezer bags for

local farmers, it had been Lakeland Plastics. Logo changes in 1979 and

1989 attempted to soften the look - especially the latter, which added

’The Creative Kitchenware Company’ to the corporate ID - but there was

no getting round the 60s associations. ’Our older customers were OK with

it, but we knew it was putting new customers off,’ says Rayner.

Plastic was definitely passe, and in any case, accounted for a

diminishing proportion of the product range. But Rayner freely admits

the corporate culture’s conservative nature meant that the name change

was agonised over for years: ’We quite liked the fact that people were

pleasantly surprised by the amount of non-plastic products on offer when

they received the catalogue,’ he confesses.

But, after a review by design consultancy Light & Coley, the name

Lakeland Ltd was born.

A customer leaflet explaining the change was sent out to new and

existing customers, and Lakeland’s customer director, Michelle Kershaw

(who recently received an award at the UK Direct conference), found a

wonderfully apt way of justifying the not-so-radical revamp. ’Hasn’t it

been a year of great change?’ she began. ’Not only has the country got a

new government, but we’ve got a new name.’ She went on to note that

’after months of deliberation, we’ve taken the plunge’.

Rayner says: ’Thankfully, there’s been no adverse reaction. In fact,

most of the letters we’ve received have said ’About bloody time!’.’

This might sound a bit too cute and quaint if it were not for the fact

Lakeland is very successful. With a turnover of pounds 40m, up from

pounds 3.4m only nine years ago, it has grown every year since it began.

And with the recent addition of a number of Lakeland shops, the company

looks set for much faster growth as it approaches the millennium.

But Rayner, 40, a family man who lives in Kendal and describes himself

and his core customers as ’middlemarket, church-going, solid citizens’,

appears to eschew all marketing jargon. ’I don’t really feel qualified

to talk authoritatively about marketing because I’ve never really

studied it,’ he says.

Yet it’s all too clear from his instinctive approach to customer service

that Rayner has a much better grasp of sound marketing principles than

many of his peers, whose approach might best be described as ’sound and

fury signifying nothing’ (to quote the Bard).

The philosophy of under-promising and over-delivering has won Lakeland

many loyal customers, with a surprisingly large proportion in London and

the South-East. ’Our aim is to try to give the customer slightly more

than they expected, although it’s very difficult because today’s

consumer is very aware and wants more all the time.’

Sales started to increase rapidly when Lakeland decided to send out more

seasonal catalogues. There are now about six a year, not including

special occasion catalogues with titles like ’Spring cleaning’ and


Each catalogue contains up to 80 pages, but every product featured has

to make money. ’If it doesn’t sell, we don’t stock it,’ says Rayner,

revealing the hard-nosed businessman beneath the shy and retiring


Although this conservative company has many perennial bestsellers,

including the original freezer bags as well as foil rolls, Rayner says

there is a policy of ’constant change. We’re always overhauling the

product range’.

As mentioned before, Rayner sees his customer base as ’middle


You can buy a pounds 24 pepper grinder or a pounds 4 toast rack, but

neither of these should be confused with upmarket or downmarket, he

says. If the company is moving up-market - the highest priced product is

a bread oven at pounds 200 - then it is simply a reflection of


Although 95% of its customers are women, a growing number of men are

being welcomed into the Lakeland fold. Most customers are aged from 35

to their early 50s, and much of the sales growth is coming from people

who choose to live alone. Rayner finds that younger people are

increasingly happy to shop by mail order.

While mail order competitors include Scotts of Stow, Divertimenti and

McCord, Lakeland’s shops are most commonly compared to John Lewis. House

of Fraser and Debenhams are also seen as points of reference. Lakeland

now has 15 shops, spread from Aberdeen to Truro.

The company, which insists on growing organically rather than by

acquisition, has been opening shops at a rate of three a year and they

now account for 40% of total sales. In fact, they’re growing faster than

the mail-order side.

Every time there is a new shop opening, Lakeland writes to its best

mail-order customers in the area and entices them to visit with a free

box of chocolate-covered Kendal mint cake. A London store is planned,

although high property prices are delaying this move.

Rayner admits he has ’no idea’ about the company’s market share.

’There’s too much of this dominate-the-world syndrome nowadays,’ he


His main concerns are profitability - ’If we’re not profitable we can’t

go forward’ - and efficiency - ’We have to be very efficient because we

work with a fairly low average order value’.

There will be no Internet presence for this company - ’too much hype and

not enough selling’ and an inadequate way of viewing unfamiliar products

- but digital TV might be a possibility. ’It sounds far more


Customer service training at Lakeland is thorough. It takes about three

months - or four weeks at the Windermere shop for shop staff - and

operators won’t be allowed on the phone until after a month. ’They’ve

got to understand the way we work, which takes time,’ says Rayner. Once

they are up and running, operators are under no time constraints in

dealing with customers.

’Some customers will want to be on and off the phone as quickly as

possible, but others will want to tell you all about the last product

they bought.’ Unusually for a senior manager, Rayner positively

encourages customers to pick up the phone and call him personally, if

necessary. After they’ve done so, they’re likely to receive a

handwritten postcard from him.

’A lot of marketing people think they’re above it, but there’s no

substitute for talking directly to your customers and staff,’ he


Small businesses have many obstacles that don’t afflict larger ones, but

Rayner is convinced that when it comes to customer service, they should

leverage their natural advantage. ’Small is believable,’ he says. Larger

firms can also enjoy this credibility, through initiatives like BT’s

’Friends & Family’, but they have to work harder.

Lakeland’s way of leveraging is to ensure that all new customers are

welcomed with a letter of thanks for ’coming on board’, and subsequent

deliveries include a signed card from the Lakeland employee who packed

the product. All mailshot work is done by Bradford-based DM agency


This attention to detail has helped grow the customer database to almost

one million. Managed in-house, it is periodically profiled against

lifestyle databases from the likes of NDL. But Rayner is sceptical about

the ability of a company to foretell the future behaviour of its

customers. ’Human nature is notoriously unpredictable,’ he declares.

Another of his small-is-believable leveraging techniques is to assure

all customers that their personal details will never be passed on to a

third party.

Rayner is convinced the issue of who owns this kind of information will

become more prominent as customers start to question how their data is

used. ’We want people to trust us and to believe that what we do is

correct and proper.’

But isn’t Rayner, the untrained marketer, being disingenuous? Isn’t this

high-minded ethical stance actually a very clever marketing device?

’Perhaps it is, but if you don’t have ethics, how are you going to

survive in the long-term? I think it’s more a case of what Drayton Bird

calls common-sense direct marketing.’

Another wonderfully disarming Lakeland technique is to mail all its

customers once a year, asking for general feedback. ’We learn a little

bit more about them each time,’ says Rayner. One of the questions

they’re asked is whether they ever felt like complaining about a product

but never got round to it. If the answer is yes, and details are

supplied, Lakeland sends a replacement product, no questions asked.

In its catalogues, Lakeland says: ’Satisfied is not good enough. We want

you to be delighted.’ Rayner admits that he is now uncomfortable with

the D-word because it has become so widely used. ’We’re trying to drop

it. What we really want is for customers to be surprised and


We want to be honest with them, to be seen as a straightforward company

with a human face.’

A straightforward company with a human face. How many marketers can say

the same of their own company?

Name: Julian Rayner

Title: Marketing director

Company: Lakeland


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