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
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
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