People in Style: Cook's companions

A kitchenware and gadget company with a cult following? Yes, really, says Imogen Fox

Outside, it is pouring down with rain, and cars with steamed up windows are edging their way onto the busy car park at the headquarters of Lakeland Limited in Windermere. It's half term, and families from the area around the Lake District have come to spend an afternoon shopping at this kitchenware and household gadgets Mecca. A useful place? Yes, but much more than that. Lakeland has a cult following.

Inside, the store is a peculiar place. One bank of shelving is full of brightly coloured plastic pegs, lunch boxes, and bottle openers; another displays every kind of clear plastic bag known to humankind. Down the next aisle tins of Charbonnel & Walker drinking chocolate, boxes of brandy brazil nuts and bottles of fancy olive oil which wouldn't look out of place in The Conran Shop (but very much cheaper than if they were) sit opposite ironing board covers and oven gloves. With such an eclectic mix of products, shopping at Lakeland feels like a cross between trolley-filling at a hardware cash and carry and shopping in an exotic airport. Over 1,500 diverse products are stocked at any one time, both on the shelves of 19 stores and on the pages of one of the seven Lakeland Limited mail order catalogues produced each year.

"Kitchens are our core business, that's what we are known for," explains Michelle Kershaw, Lakeland's customer director and employee of 23 years. Indeed, Lakeland devotees religiously look to the company to provide special cheese knives, gravy boats and condiment holders. If something disappears from the range for any reason, house-proud customers soon let Kershaw and the three Rayner brothers (who own the company) know that they want it reinstated. "We are often surprised by the response we get - the customers let us know what they want, they send us kitchen products that they've found abroad on holiday and ask us whether we can stock something similar at Lakeland," Kershaw smiles fondly.

Customer relations are highly prized at Lakeland, to the extent that some of their suggestions (which drop in at the rate of 30 per week) will be taken up and developed. Martin Rayner, eldest of the three brothers and in charge of the product range, describes a design ethic which seems particularly in keeping with the friendly, informal atmosphere of this family-run company. "We have tremendous input from customers, it's like having thousands of extra eyes around, and lots of items we develop with our suppliers as we go along - what I call back-of-a-fag-packet design." What often results from this flexible attitude to design are quirky products (witness the Cosy Grip strap, which holds a duvet in place during bedroom tussles) but which are exactly what might never be found elsewhere.

Products already in existence are sourced from all over the world - Europe, America and the Far East. It's the gourmet foodstuff - the chocolate-coated almond butterscotch from America - that Martin Rayner most enjoys discovering. "I love the food trade fairs. We've just been to one in Paris looking at food for next Christmas. I'm always bringing back samples from my holidays."

The Lakeland Limited story started 35 years ago when Alan Rayner, a travelling salesman supplying chicken feed to local farmers in the Lake District, seized upon an opportunity. "It was the freezer revolution of the Sixties and all the farmers were freezing down their meat so they didn't have to sell it off cheaply in the summer, so my father took advantage of the new polythene that was about and started selling plastic bags to farmers wives to use in the freezers - before then they used paper bags," explains Martin. Along with his two younger brothers, Sam and Julian, Martin used to help his father out in school summer holidays selling at agricultural fairs around the Lakes and helping with the fledgling mail order side of the business, advertised in trade publications like Farmers Weekly.

In 1967, with hardly any business training, the sons took over the business, then named Lakeland Plastics, which was still little more than a mail order list of freezer bags. "We were tremendously busy in the summer, but did nothing during the winter, so by about 1975 we arrived at the deduction that anybody who had a freezer had a cooker, so we decided to develop the kitchenware side of things." At first, a very basic brown paper catalogue (printed by the Rayners themselves) selling a few wooden spoons, replaced the list of plastic bags. Martin cringes as he recalls, "We didn't know what we were doing, but things started to grow. Now we still sell just as many polythene bags as we ever did but the cooking side has overtaken in importance."

Several new catalogues and a name change later - "we thought the 'Plastics' bit was putting people off and didn't really reflect what we were now selling," Martin Rayner explains - Lakeland has retained its friendly, familiar feel in its attitude to its customers. "We never sell our mailing lists," insists Julian Rayner who directs sales. "We have somewhere between half a million and a million customers, and we are very protective of them. But I can tell you there are quite a few surprising names on there!"

Naturally the Lakeland team take care to test every single product they sell. Michelle Kershaw can explain exactly how any Lakeland gadget works. "I love testing things and I daren't recommend a product in the catalogue unless I'm really impressed by it, otherwise the customers won't trust what I say."

The testing room is a playroom that resembles the MOD lab depicted in Bond movies. Kershaw shows off the range - prototype kitchen gadgets which don't make it into the range and ingenious storage and space-saving devices which do. Constant innovation will ensure Lakeland's reputation as the place where you can get any kitchenware gadget. Meanwhile, gourmet food and sheer range help give the company its cult status, and just as long as they keep on stocking freezer bags, place mats and pan scourers, the housewives will stay loyal.

Lakeland Limited enquiries: 015394 88100

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