Why you can still leave it to Lee Longlands
PUBLISHED: 12:27 08 April 2013 | UPDATED: 12:31 11 April 2013
Historic retailer Lee Longlands was widely credited with revitalising one of Warwickshire's most recognisable shopping areas, the Regency Arcade, in Leamington, when it completed its first major move outside of Birmingham in 1998.
The Parade building, long described as a white elephant in the town, was brought back to life when the furnishing giant took on 50,000sq ft of space. Less than three years later, it was fully let for the first time since 1990, with all of the shops and 10,000 sq ft of office space occupied.
The investment in Leamington by the company, which has a history longer than Selfridges and can claim to have seated world leaders on its furniture, was its biggest ever at £4.5million, and laid the foundations for a later move to its current location in Bedford Street.
Family owned and run for four generations, Lee Longlands is proud of its Midlands location and customer base. The company celebrated its 110th anniversary by publishing an online history of the store and sharing previously unseen photos from its archives.
George Longland and Robert Lee established Lee Longlands in 1902 after serving their apprenticeships at cabinetmakers and furniture sellers, Chamberlain King and Jones. The duo opened their first store at 304 Broad Street, in Birmingham, initially selling antiques before turning to manufacturing their own cabinet ranges.
The original location was by the canal, so that 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.
A few years later, many of its cabinetmakers went off to serve in World War 1 and most of them did not return. This forced management to look at boosting its product range by sourcing furniture and accessories from manufacturers in exotic destinations.
“It was once rumoured that Broad Street would be developed to rival the Champs Elysees in France, with five storey 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 founders had the vision to build a brick and Portland stone art deco building in its current location. It was 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.
Margaret added: “World War Two 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.
“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.”
Current director Robert Lee who is the fourth generation of Lees in Lee Lomglands said the firm had been responsible for a number of firsts, including after hours window display lighting in 1907, a motorised delivery van in 1912 and pioneering television advertising in the early 1970s. “Our business has changed beyond all recognition, but what has continually differentiated us from the competition is our consistent eye for style and quality.
“That is why we have survived and continued to grow. We have always looked to the future and the move to open a store in Warwickshire was very much part of our ambitions to develop the business.
“Leamington was specifically targeted as somewhere where we wanted to open our first store outside of Birmingham. “The building behind the Regency facade of the Arcade was stunning, set over four floors, with a fantastic glass lift in the atrium and four escalators. We converted it from a shopping mall-style retail format to a single occupier format but the store never reached its potential. The atrium meant less floor space for displaying large items like sofas and beds.”
The business was also affected by competition from the Touchwood Centre and John Lewis in Solihull. Robert said: “This drove footfall away, although this has now reversed with footfall in the town improving as Leamington has become a great destination for smaller, independent style retailers as well as the national chains you expect to see on the high street. After 10 years we decided to sell the building, now being developed into a hotel, and we moved to our current home, investing £500,000 to turn it into destination location for premium lifestyle furniture and accessories. 2013 marks our 15th year in Leamington, the last six at the three-floor 20,000 sq ft store in the heart of the town centre in Belmont Street.”
Another landmark in 2013 is a relaunched website, www.leelonglands.com, with e-commerce facility – meaning shoppers can browse and buy online.
Robert said: “The website is a great way to both celebrate our long history and promote our intention to be here for another 100 years. You can never sit still in retail and the company is also embarking on upgrading its showrooms. If you source the best, most interesting furnishing brands from around the world you need to show them off in the most inspirational way. That’s what we continue to do.” n