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The tea tycoon who was 'the world's best loser'

The tea tycoon who was 'the world's best loser'

Say the name Lipton, and most people think of tea. But behind that brand lies the extraordinary story of a rags-to-riches tycoon, self-publicist, philanthropist and sportsman who was honoured as "the world's best loser". In early December 1881, a steamer docked in Glasgow, carrying an extraordinary cargo from America. The world's largest cheese. Two feet thick and with a circumference of 14ft (4m), hundreds of onlookers gathered to watch it being transported by traction engine to the Lipton's store in the High Street - where it was found to be too large to fit through the door.
Pig parades and giant cheeses were among the stunts used to promote Lipton's stores
Undeterred, the parade continued to the Lipton's Jamaica Street store (which fortunately boasted a wider doorway) where the cheese was manhandled into the shop window. Nicknamed Jumbo, for a fortnight crowds marvelled at the spectacle, said to be the product of milk from 800 cows and the labour of 200 dairymaids.
As a publicity stunt it was already a success - but the Tommy Lipton had another surprise up his sleeve. In a ruse worthy of Willy Wonka, he turned the giant cheese into a golden wonder by hiding a large quantity of gold sovereigns inside it. A few days before Christmas, dressed in white suit, Lipton personally sawed into the monster. Policemen struggled to maintain order while his assistants wrapped the slices and handed them out to legions of customers who had gathered in the hope of a lucky purchase.
The Gorbals district where Lipton grew up was poverty stricken and overcrowded
It was a piece of theatre from a man who was riding a wave of remarkable success, whose grocery stores were spreading far and wide - and a world apart from his childhood in the poverty stricken Gorbals area of Glasgow. Born in 1848, the son of immigrants from County Fermanagh, across the Irish Sea, Lipton's first lessons in retail came when his father set up a small shop, selling basic provisions in the overcrowded district on the south bank of the Clyde. From the age of 10 he was picking up simple foodstuffs in a wheelbarrow from the ships that docked on the river. The docks and the sailors' stories fascinated the young Tommy Lipton. At the age of 15 he took a job as a cabin boy on a steamer. Two years later he had saved enough money for the passage to America. Various jobs took him to the tobacco and rice plantations of Virginia and South Carolina - but New York was the biggest influence.On Broadway he found himself working in the giant store owned by another immigrant of Irish/Scots descent, Alexander Turney Stewart.A marble-fronted palace of consumption, one of the biggest shops the world had ever seen. Stewart was showcasing an entirely new way of shopping.
Stewart's department stores heralded a new way of shopping
"He uses a bunch of strategies that we see Lipton using in his own career later," explains Museum of the City of New York curator Steve Jaffe. "Low mark up, high volume. You get a lot of goods, you can sell them and still make money if you sell them at a reasonable rate. "Set prices - before Stewart you haggled. Merchants, shopkeepers haggled with customers over prices. He does away with that, it's a set price."BBC iplayer.
Retailing
Glasgow
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