By Willie Nolan
The Liptons lived in County Fermanagh, but in the 1840s they decided to move to Glasgow where they opened a small grocery shop. Mrs. Lipton never forgot her Irish connections and, cutting out the middlemen, she bought supplies for the shop from Ireland. The supplies arrived by steamship every Monday in Glasgow.
Thomas, their youngest child, was born in 1850. In his mid-teens he worked as a cabin boy on the Burns Line between Glasgow and Belfast, earning eight shillings a week. According to him, “It was good to be alive and, better still, as a cabin boy on a gallant Clyde-built steamship.” The good days did not last, however, and he lost the job when he allowed smoke from a lamp to discolour the ceiling.
He sailed to America and worked at various jobs before becoming employed as a grocer’s assistant in a New York provisions store. This job changed his whole outlook on life. The store did good business, and he said that “people must eat, and the store that tempted people to buy goods would never be empty of customers”.
Lipton absorbed lessons in American techniques of advertising and salesmanship that he never forgot. He particularly noted how the store displayed its goods for the convenience, not of the owners as in Britain, but of the customers.
In 1869 he sailed back to Scotland, bringing with him a barrel of flour and a rocking chair for his mother.
He tried to effect improvements in his parents’ shop, but the father would have none of it. “Tom, we’d be getting above ourselves. The neighbours would say that the peas were getting above the sticks.”