Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 15:59 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Littlewoods' John Moores, the father of home shopping
Littlewoods Building
The imposing Littlewoods building on Edge Lane

2010 marks the 26th instalment of the John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize at the Walker Art Gallery.

One of the country's most prestigious arts prizes, its namesake - Sir John Moores CBE - was a well known British businessman and philanthropist.

His legacy is knitted into the fabric of 21st century Liverpool.

However it is Littlewoods, the name he gave to his football pool company and mail order business, which would cement his bond with the city of Liverpool.

BBC Radio Merseyside visited Littlewoods in 1982 as the mail order business celebrated its golden jubilee.

By then Littlewoods was the largest private company in Europe - a far cry from its beginnings in Whitechapel, Liverpool in the 1930s.

Already a millionaire, after his football pool business had made him rich in the 1920s, John Moores was keen to prove that he could repeat his success and, so in 1932 he launched the first Littlewoods catalogue.

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.

John Moores and Cecil Moores
John Moores and his brother Cecil Moores are commemorated with a statue

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.

Dr Peter Davis, Head of the Department of Economic Development at Liverpool University in 1982 told BBC Radio Merseyside, "The aspirations of the population were growing all the time.

"This was also a period of full employment and opportunities for anyone in mail order business were enormous but Littlewoods seized their full share of this."

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.

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.

Football Pools
John Moores made his fortune through Football Pools

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 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.

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.

His story is linked to the many Liverpool institutions that still bear his name, amongst them Liverpool John Moores University and the John Moores Foundation.

Sir John Moores' business acumen established him as one of the leading business lights of the 20th century.

Littlewoods football pool, its retail outlets and mail order catalogue have all taken their rightful place in business history - all this from a company that remained firmly rooted in Liverpool.

Littlewoods shops sold for 409m
11 Jul 05 |  Business
Tens of thousands of jobs at risk
17 Aug 03 |  Merseyside

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific