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Sir Thomas Lipton

1848 – 1931

Thomas Lipton was born on 10th May 1848 at 10 Crown Street, Gorbals. The son of immigrants from County Fermanagh, Ireland, he was the youngest of 5 and was the only one to survive infancy. In the 1860s Thomas’ father setup a small shop in the Gorbals, selling basic provisions to the local community. Thomas left school at the age of 10 to start his first job at a stationers on Glassford Street, earning just “half a crown’ for a wage. At 16 Thomas signed up to work as a cabin boy on a steamer between Glasgow and Belfast and managed to save up enough for passage to New York before being let go from his position. He travelled around the US for 5 years and worked in a number of positions including obacco plantation in Virginia, as an accountant and bookkeeper at a rice plantation in South Carolina, as a door-to-door salesman in New Orleans, a farmhand in New Jersey, and finally as a grocery assistant in the World’s largest retail store (at the time) A. T. Stewart & Co at 280 Broadway, Manhattan, New York.

It was here that Lipton learned the many unique selling methods that allowed him to change the way of shopping in Glasgow when he returned home in 1869, strategies such as “low mark up, high volume” and “set prices”.

When he returned in 1870 he setup his first store – Lipton’s Market – at 101 Stobcross Street in Anderston. Here he employed many of the techiques that he had learned in New York – the sales assistants were in bright white aprons with rows of ham and cheese. It was bright and airy and ridiculously clean and Lipton behind the counter being as charming as ever.

It wasn’t just about the store, it was also about the products on sale. He sold a number of irish goods but also imported a number of high quality goods from further afield. He also employed someone to go out and meet the farmers before they arrived at the market – and guaranteed a price, cutting out the middle man and allowing him to control the supply chain. As more stores started to pop up Lipton proved to be a master of marketing too. He had butter sculptures, giants cheeses on elephants, pig parades and much more!

By 1888 Lipton had 300 stores and wanted to grow his empire further. Tea prices were following and his middle-class customers were demanding more so he decided to open his tea-tasting office and bought Ceylon tea gardens before establishing the Lipton tea brand and distributing it throughout Europe and the USA . In doing so was able to in order to sell teas at low prices to a poorer working class market, who had previously been unable to afford such a luxury.

By this point Lipton’s stores had made it as far as London and he was mixing with royalty and the upper echelons of Victorian Society. In 1898 he floated his company, retaining a controlling interest, but pocketed £120m (£1 billion in today’s money).

In 1901 he was created a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) by King Edward VII.

Growing up on the river Clyde it is understandable that Lipton had an interest in boats, making and floating models as a child. Lipton tried to join the Royal Yacht Squadron but was turned down due to snobbery. He ended up joining the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in Bangor (County Down) and set out on a quest to win the America’s Cup in his yacht ‘Shamrock’, in 1899 but was defeated. The image of Lipton in a yachtsman’s hat ended up featuring on a lot of Lipton packaging. He challenged again a number of times up until 1930 but was always defeated each time and was labeled the “most cheerful loser” but Hollywood actor Will Rogers.

Lipton died in 1931 and huge crowds lined the streets as the funeral cortege made its way to the Southern Necropolis, where he is buried less than a mile from the Gorbals street where he was born.


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