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Lee Longlands celebrates 110 years in business

One of the West Midlands’ best-loved retailers is celebrating a special birthday in style, with the launch of exclusive new ranges and plans to roll out a new e-commerce facility.

Lee Longlands will mark more than 110 years in business this month with a series of events across its five stores in Birmingham, Cheltenham, Leamington Spa and Abingdon.

The company, which currently employs 120 people, has overcome the turmoil of two World Wars, constantly changing consumer demand and the rise in popularity of Internet shopping to remain a driving force in home furnishings.

It has been able to achieve this by having a reputation for cutting edge style and being a leader in this sector.

Over the years the family-owned firm has been responsible for a number of ‘firsts’, including the installation of ‘after hour’ window display lighting in 1907, running a motorised delivery van in 1912 and pioneering the use of television advertising in the early 1970s.

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Robert Lee, himself a fourth generation family member and current Director, picked up the story:

“The sector has changed beyond all recognition over the years, but what has continually differentiated us from the competition is our consistent eye for style and quality. Customers love our attention to family service and, coupled with the strong promotions we run, I think this has kept us ahead of our competitors.”

He continued: “Our buyers are continually sourcing new and exciting ranges, such as the latest designs from Ligne Roset, stunning bedframes from Frank Hudson and luxurious Italian leather sofas from Natuzzi.”

Behind the scenes the company has been investing in www.leelonglands.com to give domestic and international customers the chance to view the depth and breadth of the Lee Longlands collections from the comfort of their homes.

“The fully transactional website is set to be completed by Boxing Day 2012 and represents a great way to both celebrate our 110th birthday and promote our intention to be here for another 100 years,” continued Robert.

Steeped in tradition

George Longland and Robert Lee (the great grandfather of the current director) established Lee Longlands in 1902 after serving their apprenticeships at Chamberlain King and Jones.

The duo opened their first store at 304 Broad Street, initially selling antiques before turning to manufacturing their own cabinet ranges.

The original location was by the canal so timber could be brought in by barge, then the end product was transported to customers by horse-drawn carriage. In 1912, the company hit the headlines when it purchased the first-ever motorised delivery vehicle – with solid tyres.      

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A few years later, many of its cabinetmakers went off to serve in World War 1, sadly, most of them did not return. This forced the management to look at boosting its product range by sourcing furniture and accessories from manufacturers in exotic destinations around the world.

"It was once rumoured that Broad Street would be developed to rival the Champs Elysees in France, with five story buildings and a tree lined boulevard,” explained Margaret Lee, who is the granddaughter of the founder and spent more than 50 years working in the business.

In 1932 the original founders had the vision to build a brand new brick and Portland stone art deco building in its current location and the only store outside London to have curved glass windows. Some 80 years later, the building still stands and remains an important part of Birmingham’s history.

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"World War 2 was another eventful period for Lee Longlands, with part of our building used to store rations like dried fish and eggs before later becoming a public air raid shelter.”

Margaret continued: “During the war there was poor demand for furniture, so we turned to retailing blackout fabric; we cornered the market and sold thousands of miles of it.

“Members of the family used to take it in turns to watch over the building to prevent it from looting if it was hit. Luckily it came out unscathed - the closest it came to being hit was during one air raid when a bomb whistled past their heads and landed on a bus outside.”

Other notable events during the 110 years include:

  • 1950: Lee Longlands develops an accessory department selling china, glassware and linens to complete the whole house look.
  • 1958: The company exhibits for the first time at the National Ideal Home Show
  • 1962: The Broad Street store is expanded and launches a baby department and children’s play area.
  • 1970: The famous "Leave it, Leave it to Lee, Leave it to Lee Longlands" jingle is created and used extensively over TV and Radio. Versions of this early tune are still used today
  • 1970s: The retailer pioneers the Scandinavian look and builds a big following for modern design
  • 1972: Lee Longlands opens a satellite store in Cheltenham
  • 1998: Lee Longlands opens store in Leamington Spa
  • 2002: Lee Longlands acquires two stores in Oxfordshire, with one being Vineys of Abingdon
  • 2010: Company trials clearance outlets to help suppliers sell overstocked ranges and deliver value to customers hit by the recession

2012 has been a good year for Lee Longlands, with the launch of successful new collections and a 49% increase in sales during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

You can never sit still in retail and as well as investing in a fully transactional website the company is also embarking on upgrading its showrooms.

Robert Lee concluded: “If you source the best and most interesting furnishing brands from around the world then you also need to show them off in the most inspirational way possible. That’s what we continue to do best.”

An interactive scrapbook of Lee Longlands’ 110 year history is available via www.leelonglands.com.

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