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Sir John Moores Littlewoods

Sir John Moores
Today we take mail order shopping for granted but in 1930s Liverpool unemployment was rife and obtaining credit was no easy matter for many cash-strapped families. John Moores' solution was to offer his customers a 'turn club' system of credit. The idea was that people would get together and form clubs and each member would pay one shilling a week into the kitty. Moores reckoned that one shilling a week was within the reach of the average family purse. Every week, one customer from the club would take their turn to receive their goods from the catalogue. The idea proved a success on all fronts, the system generated instant cash flow for the business as poor families rushed to take advantage of the fair credit terms.  John Moores was also shrewd in carefully targeting the products he chose to the needs of ordinary working class families.  At the time, many catalogues focused on selling upmarket, luxury goods but Moores decided to offer a range of practical items such as blankets, towels and other ordinary household goods. Those that had doubted the wisdom of launching a catalogue in 1930s Britain were proved wrong. John Moores' stroke of genius lay in writing to the 20,000 or so Littlewoods pool subscribers, inviting them to be catalogue agents who would collect payments and distribute the goods. This strategy saved the company thousands of pounds in publicity and the mail order company grew from strength to strength during the rest of the decade. Although the announcement of war in 1939 temporarily halted the company's growth as Littlewoods dedicated its resources to helping the war effort, post-war prosperity would see the company's greatest growth yet. Peacetime provided Moores with the opportunity to re-examine Littlewoods' mail order business, and he phased out the turn club system in favour of interest free credit and immediate delivery to customers as soon as they made their first payment. Littlewoods continued to expand its mail order business in the 1950s.

It was during this period that Littlewoods embarked on a policy of buying up smaller companies and added Burlington, Janet Frazer, Brian Mills and Peter Craig to its ranks of catalogues. The company already had a host of retail shops including it's flagship 'Littlewoods' store in Church Street Liverppol beneath the company HQ, 'Spinney House' which was named after a 'Spinney' which is a 'little wood', hence Littlewoods. But as the company grew, the burning question for many in Liverpool was whether Littlewoods would remain in the city. There was great relief when the company announced its intention to move into the new 14 storey John Moores Centre in Old Hall Street.

Spinney House in Church Street
Speaking in 1982 former town Clerk to Liverpool City Council, Sir Stanley Holmes said, "Never at any time, I think, was the ordinary citizen or the city council not aware that Littlewoods was part of the life of the city and an important part of its commercial life. "It provided jobs and it had provided them for a long time and the fact that it was staying here to provide them was of tremendous importance."

The 14 storey 'Littlewoods' building viewed from Bixteth Street

Littlewoods Church Street Store with that statue of John and his brother

The 1960s changed the mail order business forever and a new age of disposable, high-turnover fashion crept quickly into mail order buying. Teenagers wanted clothes that would reflect their new found freedom and Littlewoods took advantage of this by launching high-fashion sections in its catalogues. There was also a market for luxury items like record players and other household electrical goods and these were all catered for by Littlewoods,

In 1982 Sir John Moores retired and the family appointed a new chairman, John Clement. It was a difficult period for business in Britain: interest rates were high and unemployment was rising, Littlewoods reacted to these pressures by trimming its expansion plans. The company reduced its workforce, shedding 2,200 jobs and closed some of its retail stores.

In 2002 the Moores' family finally released its grip on Littlewoods altogether, selling the business to the Barclay Brothers for £750m. John Moores died on 25 September 1993. By then he had had been made a Freeman of the City of Liverpool. In 1972 he was made a CBE and was knighted in June 1980. A statue designed by Tom Murphy, the bronze memorial to the founders of the Littlewoods empire was commissioned by Littlewoods to mark the centenary of Sir John’s birth. It was unveiled in 1996, outside the organisation’s flagship Church Street premises, which is now a Primark store.

The statue was moved from Church Street to Old Hall Street in 2006 while major improvement works were carried out. Following talks with the Moores family - including Sir John’s daughter Lady Grantchester – the council has returned the statue close to its original, prominent position, at the heart of the city centre. The statue has been cleaned and a new, circular plaque has been installed at it base, with the wording: “Freeman Sir John Moores, Founder, and Mr Cecil Moores, Director, of the Littlewoods Organisation.”

The Moores brothers ran the Littlewoods football pools empire, which was founded in 1923 by Sir John, a one-time post office messenger who started by printing coupons and distributing them by hand. Littlewoods’ success turned Sir John, who died in 1993, into a billionaire. He later launched the Littlewoods mail order business. His brother Cecil took over the pools operation in 1932 and ran it as chairman until 1979. Cecil died in 1989.

Above is a video used by Littlewoods featuring Arthur Askey

Robert F Edwards
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