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Empire Stores

The first European mail order and home shopping empire was started by the Fattorini family in the north of England at the end of the eighteenth century. Antonio Fattorini travelled from his birthplace of Italy to make his fortune in England around 1815. He settled in Dewsbury and became a travelling peddlar selling watches and jewellery. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution and big advancements were changing the face of shopping in the North of England.

By the end of the 1820's a number of large towns were setting up large covered markets and Antonio opened a stall in Leeds selling cheap watches and jewellery. In 1931 he made the big step of moving to a small lock-up shop in the bazaar section of the market. The market was only open 2 days a week so Fattorini continued to travel and trade at neighbouring markets. One of these markets was situated in the spa town of Harrogate. In 1841 two of the most fashionable stores in London, Debenhams and Marshall & Snelgrove opened branches in Harogate. Fattorini saw the potential of Harrogate and decided to open a branch of his jewellery and fancy goods shop. Over the next 4 years, the Harrogate shop continued to prosper but Antonio Fattorini had bigger plan. He left the running of this shop to his eldest son and moved the rest of the family to Bradford.

Bradford was a rapidly growing Northern town with great transport links and an expanding work force. He opened another jewellery store in Bradford which quickly became famous for the range and quality of its merchandise plus the low cost of the watches, jewellery and other fancy goods. Around the same time as the Bradford shop was opened, another shop run by Antonio's son Innocent was opened in Skipton. Innocent was only 18 and recently completed his apprenticeship as a watchmaker and jeweller.

Around the start of the 1850's their was a greater demand for pocket watches as the Industrial Revolution created more factories and offices that saw punctuality as a must. The cost of pocket watches were however too much for the majority of the working class so the Fattorini family came up with the idea of the Fattorini Watch Clubs which were the base from which their mail order business would grow. The idea behind these clubs was that around 50 people would meet weekly in a public house and each pay 6d. When 1. 5s was collected the money would be sent to one of the Fattorini shops and a pocket watch purchased. There would then be a raffle to see who would get the watch. The winners would continue to pay the subscription until the end of the 50 week period when all members of the club would own a watch. The habit of buying through these puchasing clubs grew rapidly and the clubs soon formed a major part of the firms business. A lot of these clubs were too great a distance from one of the Fattorini shops so catalogues were produced and the exchange of empire stores catalogue cover 1943-44 goods for cheques was done by post. This instituted a small mail order business which, based on free credit and discount was in essence the same as it is today.

In 1890 the Kirkgate shop in Bradford was demolished and the Frattorini's moved to a bigger shop. They also expanded the business to includea general range of household goods as well as watches. These formed the basis for the firms first proper mail order home shopping catalogue. By 1907 the mail order side of the business had grown so large it was decided to detach it from the retail shops and create a separate entity to handle it. The Northern Trading Stores was established and employed agents across the North of England offering a comprehensive range of household goods on an open credit system.

In 1910 it was decided to incorporate the Northern Trading Stores as a company in it's own right but the Registrar of Companies refused because the name was already in use, Empire Stores Limited was the suggested alternative. In 1912 Enrico Fattorini fell out with the family and decided to start his own mail order business. Grattan Warehouses was formed and grew to become of the largest mail order businesses in the UK, Grattan plc.

Empire Stores continued to grow as a mail order business over the two world wars and by 1968 had to install an IBM computer with the expanded sales. In 1997 Empire Stores became an online presense and one of the largest Europeam mail order businesses Redcats bought a 25% stake in Empire Stores. In 2008, the Shop Direct Group headed by the Barclay brothers bought the Empire Stores brand name.

In 2010, Shop Direct decided to streamline it's home shopping business by merging 4 catalogues into 2. Marshall Ward became Isme catalogue and Great Universal, Kays catalogue and Empire Stores were rebranded into K and Co.

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  • 1815 - Antonio Fattorini moves to England from Italy
  • 1831 - First shop opened in Leeds
  • 1841 - Harrogate store opened
  • 1850 - Fattorini Clubs created to give workers an opportunity to own a watch
  • 1907 - Northern Trading Co. founded to handle mail order business
  • 1910 - Empire Stores becomes mail order business for Fattorini family
  • 1912 - Enrico Fattorini leaves family business to create Grattan Warehouses
  • 1968 - IMB computer installed to cope with expanding sales
  • 1997 - Empire Stores goes online
  • 1988 - Redcats buy 25% interest in Empire Stores
  • 2008 - Shop Direct buy Empire Stores brand name from Redcats
  • 2010 - Empire Stores merged with Kays catalogue and Great Universal to a new catalogue, K and Co