Glasswells at 75: How the business went from a post-Second World War secondhand shop to a thriving family firm
When Jerry Glasswell started selling secondhand furniture from a tiny town-centre shop in 1946, Britain was just emerging from the horrors of the Second World War.
Rationing was still in force and the country was battle-scarred and weary, but people looked forward with hope that the austerity forced by tough economic conditions might soon be over.
This year, as the business empire he founded reaches its 75th anniversary, the nation is again struggling to escape the grip of a seismic event.
The Covid pandemic is often described as the worst situation the country has faced since the war.
Glasswells – now headed by Jerry’s grandson Paul and the largest independent furniture retailer in East Anglia – has spent the past 16 months navigating choppy waters of lockdowns and supply chain problems.
As a thriving business it has been well placed to weather the storms and has continued to invest in improvements.
But an enforced three month closure of its stores was not the way the company expected to start marking 75 years of trading.
Glasswells has spacious ‘destination’ stores with restaurants in Bury and Ipswich, shops in Haverhill and Saffron Walden, and a discount outlet in Sudbury, while its removals and storage business is based in Kempson Way, Bury.
“We have quite a lot of strings to our bow, which was useful during lockdown,” said Paul, who succeeded his father Leslie as managing director in 1989.
But in the first lockdown almost everything had to stop. Only half a dozen of the company’s 280 staff were working, in the contracted-out storage area.
“The world stopped. Furniture stopped coming in. We couldn’t deliver to anyone,” he said.
“The second and third lockdowns weren’t so severe. The shop couldn’t open but the warehouse and fitting teams could carry on working.
“Not everything fires on all cylinders all the time but at least we had some cylinders firing.”
They took advantage of this year’s lockdown to upgrade the air conditioning in the flagship Bury St Edmunds store, where the atrium was refurbished in 2020. The Ipswich store’s restaurant has also been updated.
“We try to keep the presentation sharp even though we might have been keen to save... it’s most important to people that we are relevant today, not only with the furniture but the environment they come into,” said Paul.
But Covid clampdowns on travel, especially holidays abroad, seem to have brought an unexpected bonus with people turning their attention to their homes instead.
“Since the end of lockdown this year furniture has been very busy. We noticed a bit of a surge after all three lockdowns. Because people can’t go abroad they’re thinking about making their life more comfortable at home. Garden furniture especially has been good.
“But the supply chain has become more tricky so delivery times are longer. It’s a question of if we can actually get it.
“There aren’t enough ships and containers to move goods around the world at the moment. The price of a shipping container has gone up five times. Shipping one container used to be £3,000 now it’s £15,000.
“Fifty per cent of our total stock is from the UK. A third of the balance is from the Far East, and the other two thirds from Europe.
“There is a shortage of workers generally. It’s more difficult to fill vacancies now, with suppliers, truck drivers and our own restaurant staff.”
The pandemic and Brexit have hit businesses with a double dose of tough challenges.
“Paperwork from the EU is an additional burden, an extra job we didn’t have to do before,” said Paul.
“During this whole thing it has been a moving target - what the rules are, what we should be doing, how we cope with each different requirement.
“All businesses have had to adapt and have been very versatile in making these changes.”
It is all very different to the commercial world in which Jerry and Leslie Glasswell began building up the business ... although one gets the feeling they would have risen to the challenge.
“The company was started by my grandfather who opened a shop in Brentgovel Street with his wife Ethel,” said Paul. “My father Leslie joined them soon after the war.
“In the beginning they sold secondhand, then utility furniture. They opened shops in Haverhill, Stowmarket and Saffron Walden. The 1950s and 60s were pretty busy, with the number of shops in Bury going from one to two to three.”
Through the 70s and 80s the family firm continued to expand and acquired stores in Norwich, Sudbury and Braintree, as well as investing in its existing network.
By the early 1990s its Bury business was spread over sites in Brentgovel Street, St Andrew’s Street, and the Corn Exchange – each targeting a different market.
“In 1992 it became obvious we needed to make a step change to provide something a lot more comprehensive,” said Paul.
The solution came in the shape of an old tractor depot on a four and a half acre site in the town’s Newmarket Road where they created a World of Furniture store.
The move took them into the out-of-town furniture market previously dominated by firms who did retailing with no frills, whose shops were more like warehouses.
“This was more sophisticated. It saw a big change in our ambitions to grow the business. It was a big investment – £1.6 million.
“Buying this site was a massive leap forward. At first the store was 34,000sqft, but still a big unit compared to the town centre. Now it’s three times that size, with extensions in 1996 and 2002.
“It was an opportunity to keep going forward and become more a regional hub. It’s a lovely shop, a big shop, and is well worth driving to.
“We wanted to give an environment different from a town centre store. You can spend as long or as little time as you like, have lunch or tea, there are lots of different elements that make up the home furnishing store.”
A second World of Furniture opened in rented premises at Martlesham Heath, on the outskirts of Ipswich, in 1995.
“We were renting for about 10 years then had the opportunity to buy a more central site near the railway station. It was the chance to convert a bigger site and bring it up to the same standard as Bury,” said Paul.
“It was quite a big step because we also bought sites around it which are tenanted, and a big step investing in Ipswich, investing in property and taking a loan to do so.
“We’d just embarked on that when we had the financial crash. The good thing is that even if there is bit of a headwind for a while it doesn’t last forever.
“The store opened in 2007 and in 2008 to 2009 we were in a good position to take advantage when the country got back on its feet again.”
Bury and Ipswich both have The Place to Eat restaurants.
“Everything we sell we make, even down to the mayonnaise,” said Paul.
“There are a lot of places you can go and have a bun in a cellophane package. Here everything’s fresh.
“In Bury we sell about 1,000 scones a week. Some people come in just for the restaurant.”
Uncertainty over the pandemic has made it hard to plan specific events to celebrate the 75 years milestone.
But they have an ongoing anniversary sale, and Jerry Glasswell’s ‘great tea and sugar Christmas giveaway’ for pensioners – a tradition he began in 1954 that ran for 30 years – is being celebrated with a free pot of tea for two in the restaurant.
“The next few months are going to be all about our history,” said Paul.
Last August, just a couple of months after Covid restrictions allowed them to reopen, the Bury store was hit by flooding when a massive downpour caused water to pour through the ceiling.
“What was amazing was the way the staff rallied round in that point of crisis,” he said. “A lot of people who were off came in to help. We managed to get enough of it dried out to reopen the following weekend with a flood sale.”
He says in the five years since Glasswells’ 70th anniversary the most significant change has been the growth in internet shopping.
“When we opened the Bury store in 1992 – and even when we celebrated out 70th – our competition was just other shops. Now it is across the whole of the UK, sometimes even across Europe.
“We have a very successful website ourselves. But the bulk of our sales are still in store.
“People seem to use the internet for information gathering and styles, so when they come in here they can piece it together.”
Looking to the future, Paul anticipates further expansion. “The company is successful. We’re still looking to expand more when the opportunity arises.” he said.