With the traditional retail model facing enormous pressure from the cut-price, overnight delivery internet warehouses, it is clear that outlets need to focus on providing ‘added value’ if they are to survive.

At Lillico Attlee, an innovative approach to country store retailing looks set to see the company’s stores in Aylesford, near Maidstone, and Dorking in Surrey not only survive but thrive well into the future.

The revitalised store at Aylesford is currently proving so successful that director Fred Walker, the fifth generation of the family to be involved in the enterprise, is confident that it will still be serving a growing customer base when the sixth generation is ready to take over the reins.

He puts much of his confidence down to the impact of Maria Giuliani, who joined as store manager at Aylesford in May 2018 and has since been made group retail manager, allowing her fresh approach and professionalism to make maximum impact on both sites.

While Maria has introduced changes to the layout of the stores, brought in new stock ranges and broadened the stores’ appeal with events and community initiatives, it’s more than just her influence that has driven the Lillico Attlee stores’ growth.

Fred, Maria and the rest of the teams at both Aylesford and Dorking have a total focus on customer service and on delivering expert advice that goes well beyond the norm. That expertise is summed up perfectly by head of farm Antony Butcher, who has been with Lillico Attlee ‘man and boy’ since 1993.

“We have 1,500 stock lines in the farm department and I would challenge any of our customers to find a product Antony can’t provide information and advice on,” commented Fred.

And while Antony has a particular breadth of knowledge regarding farm supplies, the rest of the shop floor team is equally skilled in their own areas. “We focus on product knowledge and on giving first class service because that’s something you can’t get over the internet,” Fred added. “We stock 10,000 lines in total and if we don’t stock it, we can order it in from one of the 150 suppliers we deal with, usually within a day or two.”

The team at Lillico Attlee is so confident that service is their trump card that they have refused to follow the lead of some country store retailers in charging for helmet and body protection fitting, something that every member of staff is trained to do.

“A number of other shops tell us they charge £5 or £10 per fitting because people come in to find out what size they need and then buy the item online to save a few pounds,” Maria explained. “We don’t do that because we know that if we do a great job of helping and advising the customer, they will usually buy the item from us.”

Virtually the whole team on the shop floor is a highly trained, full-time member of staff, and even the odd part-timer – necessary to keep the rota flexible – inevitably moves to a full-time position as soon as one is available. “Customers never come across a member of staff who isn’t able to help them or give them advice,” said Maria.

That advice extends to animal medicines, too, with a number of ‘suitably qualified persons’ on the team, headed by Antony, who can sell medicines across the board, including those for farm animals.

“Both stores provide a one-stop shop for all our customers’ equestrian, pet and farms needs, and while there is a focus on the equestrian side, particularly at Dorking, the farm departments were the fastest growing in the company in 2018,” explained Fred.

One important change Maria introduced was to make sure that the store stocks a full range of sizes within its clothing ranges. “It’s taken a considerable investment, but if we want customers to shop with us we need them to know that we will have every item in every size,” said Fred. “We know how frustrating it can be otherwise.”

The family business was started by William Lillico in East Croydon in 1860 as an agricultural merchant, but moved in the 1980s to Aylesford. The shop now sits alongside its sister company, the internationally renowned Saracen Horse Feeds, which ensures a reliable supply of cattle, pig, sheep and poultry feed in Lillico Attlee’s feed barn, which is open to the public. The family bought Attlee’s in Dorking, which dates back to 1788, in 1973.

William’s son Lionel joined the business at the turn of the century and Paul Walker became the third generation of the family to take the helm when he married Lionel’s daughter Mary. He ran the business with Keith Denham, whose son Michael took over briefly on the death of his father but died himself just a few years later.

It was on Michael’s death in 2007 that Patrick Walker, Paul’s son, took the reins. He is still chairman of the company, while his son Fred joined as a director in January 2017 and now runs the business with brother-in-law John Rawdon-Mogg.

For Maria, joining Lillico Attlee was a step back to her roots. From the age of 17 she worked on beef and sheep farms in Northumberland, but when she moved down to this part of the world she joined retail giant Pets at Home, where she worked for 13 years.

She knew Lillico Attlee as a customer, having used it for equestrian supplies for her two horses Holly and Ivy, and when she decided, after 13 years with Pets at Home, that she needed a new challenge, she jumped at the chance of using her retail expertise to revitalise the company’s offer.

“It’s no longer enough to put stock on the shelves and open the doors, and Maria has broadened our offer considerably,” said Fred. “We are now running events such as puppy parties, rehoming days for the Fresh Start for Hens charity and talks and demonstrations by the likes of Animal World Encounters and Kent Wildlife Trust.

“We want to make each of our stores a community hub where people can drop in and take part in an event as well as browsing through our clothing and footwear, equestrian, farm or pet ranges. We have plans to expand the shop and to add a café at Aylesford, which will make a visit to Lillico Attlee even more of an experience.”

The Lillico Attlee store in Dorking, now managed by James Hunt, has been supplying the local farming and equestrian community since 1788 and runs a successful local delivery service as well as a fully stocked shop and feed barn.

Southern Farmers account holders benefit from a 5% discount at both stores, which stock products from suppliers including Rumenco, Supalyx, Netex, Showtime, Agrifence, Eliza Tinsley, Country Hunter clothing, V12 footwear and NVS.

As well as events, a broader range of stock and a guaranteed supply of feed from the mill 50 metres away, Lillico Attlee also offers services including rug washing, nutrition advice and clipper blade servicing, while feedstuffs are available at a discount for customers who buy in bulk.