HousewaresNews.net is deeply sad to announce that after a short illness, Jennifer Lawson, of home department store chain Lawsons of Devon, passed away on February 29, surrounded by her family.
Jennifer was a pioneer of independent retailing, recognising consumer demand and need for kitchenware from the 1970s onwards, and championing exemplary service, the sharing of knowledge and the importance of in-store demonstrations. She was instrumental in expanding Lawsons’ business via new stores as well as departments.
Liz Lawson Jennifer’s daughter and current managing director of Lawsons looks back at Jennifer’s considerable contribution to housewares retailing, and how it started with a passion and expertise for cake decorating:
‘The story of Jennifer and Lawsons began in the mid-1970s, starting with her volunteering to make a cake to celebrate the Queens Jubilee for her daughters’ school. She had designed a cake comprising of five 12” cakes cut into 1” squares so every girl in the school could have a piece. It required 320 union flags, one for each square, but she didn’t know where to find everything she needed.
Jennifer realised that cake decorators like her needed a shop where they could buy everything for a cake in one shop. She saw a gap in the market and made it her mission to fill it.
Jennifer introduced cake decoration to Lawsons, sourcing tins of all shapes and sizes (starting cake tin hire too), along with cake boxes, boards, stands, ribbons and silk flowers. She started our long-term relationships with suppliers such as Anniversary House, Culpitts, Wiltons and Alan Silverwood; all of whom we still work with today.
In an interview for Housewares magazine in 1985, Jennifer said: “Two or three times a day a customer will come to me with her intended cake. I will stop everything and help her out with it, give her my opinion, tell her if I don’t like it and perhaps suggest a more practical design.”
She continued: “More often than not I will encourage a return visit by asking them to bring me a photo of the finished cake”. Jennifer highlighted why Lawsons’ cake decoration business was so successful: “We listen to our customers, who tell us what they want, and all the staff have knowledge of the craft.”
It has been this business mindset and focus on customer service which has seen Lawsons thrive through the challenges in retail.
Jennifer started organising cake decorating demonstrations, inviting famous cake decorator Mary Ford in 1985 and attracting 100 people. This then led to further specialist demonstrations at Lawsons (including woodturning).
She was also the powerhouse behind Lawsons’ trade stands at local agricultural shows such as the Devon County Show, the Yealmpton Ahow and the Totnes Show for many years. Jennifer worked alongside suppliers such as Frank Picken and Bodum, helping Lawsons to reach out to their customers outside of the Plymouth shop.
In 1979, Jennifer was instrumental in the opening of Lawsons’ first shop outside Plymouth when the company opened in Totnes. She even made the Elizabethan outfits for the staff to wear on Totnes’ Elizabethan Tuesday.
Jennifer started our trading relationships with suppliers such as Le Creuset, Brabantia, Horwoods, T&G Woodware and Bodum, building our kitchenware business, which is now more than 50% of our turnover. Over the years she became well known by suppliers and many would seek out her counsel for new product ideas and consumer trends as her knowledge of kitchenware and cake-decorating products was vast.
The staff all knew her as ‘Mrs L’. She loved working on the shop floor and many staff would comment that she could work longer and harder than any of them. Customers would seek her out for her product knowledge. She always passionately led by example.’
Liz says on behalf of everyone who works or has worked at Lawsons, as well as the retailers’ legions of loyal customers: ‘We are deeply indebted to her for helping to build our family business, which has been a huge part of our community in Devon. We will always remember Jennifer Lawson and be grateful for the part she played in the success of Lawsons and will continue her legacy.”
Top: Jennifer Lawson of Lawsons, 1938-2020