Attention to retail
With Freemasons from across the world flocking through its high-arched doors, Letchworth’s is proving to be a popular draw for visitors. Manager Kevin Duffy reveals why the shop at Freemasons’ Hall offers so much more than souvenirs
What attracted you to the position of shop manager?
I applied to work in Letchworth’s eleven years ago.
I’d managed high street stores before; I’m not a mason myself, but the idea of working for Freemasonry was intriguing. The shop was much smaller then, perhaps twelve foot by twelve foot with some cabinets and a till. There was nothing there really, but Diane Clements (Director of the Library and Museum) handed me the keys and said, ‘Off you go.’ It was the perfect challenge.
How have things changed in the shop?
For one thing, it’s three times bigger! We’ve just completed our third refit to include a clothing section and a jewellery counter. What started as a modest collection of Grand Lodge publications has expanded into nine different product ranges, including regalia, homeware, audio and the usual quirky gifts like teddy bears, book lights and heraldic shields.
Why has the shop been so successful?
The shop wouldn’t be anything without the knowledge of the Freemasons in this building. With so many products, it’s impossible to know everything about all of them, so I rely on the expertise of the people around me. Whether it’s a London Grand Rank Association volunteer relaying customer requests or somebody from the Library and Museum giving me advice about regalia, I listen to what they have to say. All that has come together to produce the incredible shop we have now; it’s been a communal effort to get to where we are.
How has the internet affected sales?
Some people see it as a threat, but for Letchworth’s it’s been a massive advantage as so many members live outside London. Ever since we launched the website eight years ago, the number of overseas visitors has also grown tremendously. It’s been a fantastic resource for spreading the Letchworth’s name, as well as bringing in sales of its own. In 2007, online accounted for twenty per cent of all sales, but today it brings in just under half when combined with mail order. It’s fantastic when you get visitors from the other side of the world coming in and saying they wish they had something like this where they come from. They also spend more than the British customers; average spend for overseas masons is from £70 to £80, but for UK Freemasons it’s from £20 to £30.
Is there competition in the world of masonic retail?
There’s a friendly rivalry with the external masonic shops, especially those based across the road from us. We all want Freemasonry to be a good experience.
All the profits that we make in Letchworth’s are gift-aided to support the work of the Library and Museum.
Are masonic items always high quality?
There are always some companies out there who try to get involved in any market in the cheapest way possible. You can tell in an instant if it’s a poor product, and we won’t touch it. If you stock bad-quality products, word will spread – one customer will tell ten others and then your business goes backwards. On the flip side, if you provide good products and great service, it cements a good reputation.
‘The shop wouldn’t be anything without the knowledge of the Freemasons in this building... it’s been a communal effort to get to where we are.’
How has Freemasonry changed over the past decade?
Freemasons’ Hall has become much busier, and that’s had a direct impact on the shop. Seven years ago, the building had maybe six lodge meetings on a Saturday; now there can be up to twenty-nine. There’s also a more open feel about the Hall. That’s probably down to the public tours and an increased international interest in Freemasonry.
What’s your favourite part of working at the shop?
I love working here, but it’s the people who really make it. The camaraderie is what helps drive the business forward. I rely so much on the input of my staff and volunteers, especially when it comes to expanding the range. My performance as a manager is very much tied up with theirs, and fortunately we have a dynamic team.
What does the future hold?
My ultimate goal is to keep developing the shop.
You’ve always got to keep moving forward in business, and that’s what I strive to do by challenging the staff, volunteers and United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) to keep coming up with new ideas. We could easily fill a shop three times the size of what it is now. But we wouldn’t fill it with any old product; it would have to have good-quality stock that I would be proud to sell.
How it all began
Past Junior Grand Deacon and long-time member of the UGLE team, Ken Garrett recalls Letchworth’s early days
Our first purchases were very modest and in line with items that could be found in most museums and buildings open to the public – key rings, coasters and a set of postcards of sites within the building. We were able to back these up with the Grand Lodge publication Freemasons’ Hall, which had colour slides and an explanation of most of the photos.
We recruited sufficient brethren from the London Grand Rank Association to man the shop full-time, then we waited to see what the outcome would be. After a slow start the shop got accepted, first by visitors and then – somewhat reluctantly, it seemed – by members, who usually only made a quick visit before going to a meeting. We steadily increased the number of items for sale as demand arose.
From small beginnings, Letchworth’s has blossomed into a major shop and I trust fulfilled the hopes of all who recall its birth.