Tradition meets hi-tech to keep tea titans Ringtons on track

North East family firm Ringtons goes from strength to strength by adapting traditional values for a modern age

Ringtons directors Simon, Nigel and Colin Smith
Ringtons directors Simon, Nigel and Colin Smith

Many can still remember the “pop man”, the butcher, the coal man or the milkman making his regular weekly deliveries to households across the region.

Yet, aside from supermarket delivery services, the more traditional doorstep service through which customers can build a rapport with a firm’s friendly delivery man has all but vanished thanks to the overriding convenience of out-of-town supermarkets and their price battles with discount grocery chains.

However, Newcastle-based Ringtons is bucking the trend. Its traditional doorstep selling methods are as popular now as they were in 1907 when the company first began.

Historically a tea merchant, the company has diversified its product offering and added more teas, infusions, coffees, biscuits, cake and gifts to its range but, fundamentally, Ringtons continues to sell to its customers in the same way it did over a century ago.

The horses and carts of the past have, of course, been traded in for a fleet of delivery vans, and payment methods have also been updated, allowing customers to pay by card machine as well as cash.

Nigel Smith, Ringtons’ chairman, said: “It’s quite astounding that, 108 years after my great grandfather Samuel Smith set up Ringtons, there is still demand for a door-to-door delivery service.

“Although we have adopted modern processing and packing techniques at our Tyneside factory, as well as invested heavily in internal IT systems which make customer service more efficient and logistical planning easier for us, fundamentally, we are still able to offer customers the same doorstep delivery service we always have.”

The firm started out with an initial investment of £250 from a business partner, William Tittherington, and latest financial results show Ringtons has a turnover of more £50m, boasts over 30 sites across the UK and has more than 200 vans delivering throughout the UK to over 250,000 customers.

With coverage from Edinburgh in Scotland to Ivybridge and Hointon in Devon on the south coast, Ringtons also has plans to launch six new vans to the south coast of the country this year, and further expansion will be explored in future years.

The directors cite its continued success as being down to the uniqueness of the service, coupled with the high quality of the products.

Even through the recession, Ringtons fared well, with customer numbers remaining buoyant throughout the difficult period in which even the most reputable companies suffered.

And it’s the consistent face-to-face interaction the delivery teams had with the customers during tough times that directors feel sure helped maintain the firm’s popularity and, ultimately, profitability.

Simon Smith, chief executive officer at Ringtons, said: “When we met the recession in 2008, like most other businesses we were very worried about how it would impact on us, our major concern being the possible loss of some customers.

“While we can’t say we were unaffected by the recession, we came out of it a lot better than we thought we would. We believe this was down to our amazing customer loyalty generated through the service our team provide and the quality of the products.

“Alongside our reputation as a reliable brand with a strong heritage, we found quality tea is considered an affordable luxury in difficult times.”

With the firm’s heritage clearly a unique selling point, Ringtons delved completely into its past in 2013, resulting in new product packaging – the first complete overhaul it had gone through in 15 years, and only the third since the 1960s.

The new packaging, designed by Lateral Advertising, was created to commemorate the rich heritage and expertise of Ringtons, while also incorporating modern styling.

The designs adorn all of Ringtons’ tea, coffee, infusions, biscuits and edible ranges and came at a time when the company was reaching into new markets, all keen “to take traditional British tea”.

And it’s not just tea that’s selling well. Just as Greggs the bakery giant are now seeing huge rises in coffee revenues, Ringtons, too, are taking advantage of the rapidly rising UK-wide coffee market.

Left to right: Ringtons directors Simon, Nigel and Colin Smith
Left to right: Ringtons directors Simon, Nigel and Colin Smith

The firm has invested substantially in its coffee roasting facilities and has ploughed £3m into the expansion of its Balliol Business Park factory. And, as well as giving the firm additional production capacity for its ever-growing tea business, directors have said it will also enable it to further develop the coffee business, a division which has always been part of the 108-year-old company but is now ripe for expansion.

The multimillion-pound expansion, which is part of a £10m reinvestment made by the company over a three-year period, is well underway and work is due for completion by October this year.

More than 100 of Ringtons’ 515-strong workforce work at the factory, and around 10 new jobs will be created when it is complete.

Although best known for its doorstep delivery service, Ringtons also operates a business-to-business division, Ringtons Beverages, which supplies the likes of Fenwick, Jesmond Dene House, the NHS and the Vermont Hotel. This division is growing significantly – by more than 20% for the third consecutive year this year.

Nigel Smith explained: “As a family business we are very proud of our heritage, and my brothers Simon, Colin and I are keen to maintain our traditions and commitment to the core doorstep delivery business that Sam started in 1907.”

And he added: “However, it’s also vital we create and develop a sustainable business to pass on to future generations of the family, and to do this we need to exceed customer expectation and diversify.

“While we continue to celebrate and protect our heritage through our doorstep delivery service and our personal relationships with customers, we must always ensure this is backed up by great products, modern technologies, company efficiencies and diversification.

“So, while on the surface it may seem Ringtons hasn’t changed much in 108 years we’ve actually been working very hard to make it look that way.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer