Atkinsons rising to the challenge as Sheffield city centre's sole surviving department store
It is Sheffield city centre’s last department store following the John Lewis and Debenhams closures, but are Atkinsons’ bosses happy about their longstanding rivals' demise?
No, because any new customers have been cancelled out by an overall drop in footfall, says manager Ben Kerry.
He added: “We were very disappointed John Lewis was going. It is another reason to perhaps not visit the city centre. It’s good to have competition.”
The company has responded in a low key way by adding premium products to its core range. It started selling televisions again and opened a children’s department three months ago, for a range of reasons.
And its legions of regular customers, and the new ones, will be relieved to know the 149-year-old business isn't going anywhere.
Mr Kerry added: “We haven’t done anything specific to target the John Lewis crowd but our buyers are encouraged to select products at a higher end.”
But then he makes it very clear: “We would never alienate customers the business has worked very hard for, for a very long time.”
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Up until the last few years Atkinsons was seen as a shop for older people, with an average age of 60, says marketing manager and furniture specialist David Cartwright.
They are famously loyal and often on first name terms with staff. But that hasn’t stopped the company trying new things to ‘remain relevant’ amid so much change, he adds.
“We’ve all gone contactless but we don’t need to go faceless. The last two years have been very difficult for everyone and it’s nice to see familiar faces again.”
He added: “Televisions have come back and have been very popular. It’s another reason to bring people in the shop. We’re a bit more confident these days that people will come for one thing and see what we are trying to do across other departments and be pleasantly surprised perhaps.”
He points to sustainable products including Whistletree vegan bags, cookware made from cans, vegan towels and sofas made with recycled material.
The company has also moved into fashion brands like White Stuff, Joules, Sea Salt and Super Dry.
As a result the age profile has come down. But it didn’t happen in isolation.
The Moor was a ‘bit of a mess’ and there was nothing for young people, says David, until it had a £120m revamp.
Today, it boasts the The Light cinema, a big Primark and a bowling alley among its attractions.
Atkinsons also ran a ‘discover and rediscover’ advertising campaign targeting different groups. Even students, who would come in once for pans at the start of term, have been returning, he adds.
Founded in March 1872, Atkinsons is gearing up for its 150th next year. It survived Covid just as it survived the Blitz.
Employing 84, it is still a family firm. Nicholas Atkinson is chairman and wife Christine is a fashion buyer.
There is no far away headquarters. That means decisions can be made quickly and everyone pitches in. When it snowed last week, directors and managers helped clear the car park, says David.
The company is investing in the future, having just installed new escalators - which famously never happened at John Lewis - and new lifts are coming soon.
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But above it all is the core mission of continuing to be the – now undisputed - best department store in town.
Where else can you buy health food, and a few yards away, a fitted kitchen? As well as televisions, it sells white goods and electronics, beds and sofas, ornaments and toiletries and even has a heel bar.
“We’d prefer people to buy new shoes of course, but we have to have it,” David jokes.
Atkinsons is proud of its cook shop which sells ‘every kitchen gadget known to man’. It has two cafes and a restaurant serving Christmas dinner. Tony Currie was in for a book signing the other day.
To those unused to the delights of a department store it can be a little disorientating.
Atkinsons won the ‘Large Retailer’ category in the Sheffield City Centre Retail Awards last year.
At the time, Nicholas Atkinson said: "This all began as a tiny, quiet shop, started by my great-great-grandfather in 1872.
“He opened a small drapery just across the road from where we are now on The Moor, selling ribbons and beads, and the sorts of things that were in demand in those days.
"And from that very small beginning, and his attention to detail when looking after customers, over a number of years he expanded and then, just before the turn of the century, he developed a department store on this very site.
“It was a marvellous thing to see. Internally it was well ahead of its time, with atriums, internal gardens, a zoo, and – of course – the famous grotto.
"When my great-great-grandfather died in 1929, his sons took over the business, and it continued to grow.
“Atkinsons has seen a lot in its century-and-a-half, but I would say that 2020 has been as tough a year as any it’s faced.
"We shut down completely for three months in the spring, and when we came back, we took our commitment to our staff and customers seriously, working hard to make this a place where people were safe.
"It hasn’t been easy, but the people of this city supported us, as they always have.
“To hear that we’ve won Large Retailer of the Year for the second year running, at the end of such a difficult year, has been an unbelievable pleasure.”
The judges’ said: “Atkinsons is a Sheffield institution; a family business that has experienced many challenges over the decades, but is still going strong 150 years on.”