Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum is often considered to be the world’s greatest showman but another 19th Century entrepreneur who used a number of the same techniques and whose name is still known right around the world was Thomas J. Lipton.
Lipton was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1850. At the age of fifteen, he travelled to the United States. There he worked on a Virginia tobacco farm, a rice plantation in South Carolina, a streetcar in New Orleans before finding a job in a department store’s grocery section in New York City. It was here he witnessed “American” merchandising and advertising in action and learnt the lessons he would employ so successfully later in life.
Unlike millions of others who had left for the United States never to return, Lipton saved up his earnings and went back to Scotland. After briefly working in the family grocery store, he opened his own in 1871. Lipton’s Market opened its doors at 101 Stobcross Street in the Anderston area of Glasgow.
To announce the launch he organised a headline-grabbing parade of what he called the “largest hogs in captivity”, each of which carried a sign proclaiming: “I’m going to Lipton’s. The best shop in town for Irish bacon!”
Other publicity-generating stunts included importing the world’s largest cheese and issuing ‘Lipton Currency Notes’. The store was a huge success and he quickly expanded. By 1880, Lipton had twenty stores, and by 1890 he had three hundred. He was a household name throughout Britain, renowned for his innovative retailing and promotional techniques.
Rather than resting on his laurels Lipton moved onto and into new things; as well as starting to challenge for the Americas Cup, something he would win five times between 1899 and 1930, he decided to get into the tea business.
He felt there was an opportunity to make tea universally accessible with guaranteed quality at acceptable prices. He chose to bypass the traditional trading and wholesale distribution channels (most UK tea-trading was at that time focused in London’s Mincing Lane). At that time tea was a drink for the wealthy, with the price around three shillings a pound (15p). Lipton would price his tea at the equivalent of one shilling sevenpence a pound (7.5p)
Tea had traditionally arrived in crates and was sold loose, but Lipton would change that as his tea was now pre-packed at multiple weight options and standardised to guarantee quality. Later, Lipton would be the first brand to sell tea leaves in tea bags.
The arrival of his first shipment of tea was done in traditional Lipton style with an accompanying parade of brass bands and bagpipers.
The next big change happened when Lipton went on “vacation” to Australia. In fact, he never planned on going to Australia, the story was a cover for a trip to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There a recent blight had ruined the English coffee planters, and the survivors were now planting tea. With land prices low, Lipton had spotted another opportunity and bought five of the bankrupt plantations. This and his subsequent acquisition of about a further dozen sites allowed him to unveil a new slogan, “Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Teapot.”
In 1893, he officially established the Thomas J Lipton Co. and the Lipton brand of teas.
Lipton® teas were an immediate success in the United Kingdom and the United States where, for his headquarters, he chose a warehouse in Hoboken, New Jersey. True to form he was backwards in announcing his arrival and built a huge Lipton’s Tea sign that could clearly be read from any point in New York harbour.
In recognition of his exceptional contribution to the country, Thomas Lipton was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1898, and became Sir Thomas Lipton at the age of forty-eight.
Lipton® is now the world’s leading tea brand, sold in more than 150 countries.