With a new state-of-the-art warehouse, an expanding US division and a new retail service off to a flying start, things are looking up for catalogue giants Damart. T&A Reporter Mark Casci took an exclusive first look at the new warehouse at Steeton and the firm's plans for future expansion.

Fifty years before the expansion of the internet, people were shopping with Damart from the comfort of their own homes.

One of the original "home shopping" companies, the catalogue firm's strong brand and customer base means it has continued to grow in spite of challenges from the likes of QVC and internet-based shopping networks.

Current turnover stands at approximately £88 million and the company recently began trading in America again, finding success in its niche market.

Crucially, what sustains Damart's growth is it ability to meet the continuing challenge of renewing its traditional customer base of senior shoppers with each generation Despite having customers living all over the country, the firm continues to handle virtually all its operations from the Bradford district, where it employs 723 people.

Most of Damart's employees are based at its head office in Bingley, while its catalogues and promotional literature are mailed out from Earby in Craven.

And the firm's continuing commitment to the region was demonstrated this week when it opened its warehouse on Station Road, Steeton.

The state-of-the-art facility is now the distribution centre for the company's entire network, with more than ten million items being shipped out to customers every year.

The warehouse has space for 150,000 cartons and 5,000 pallets of stock and uses a unique bar-coding system to help identify and retrieve goods as quickly as possible.

The new facility originally met opposition from residents and bosses sank the foundations lower into the site to reduce the impact on the local sight line.

The Steeton warehouse has brought all Damart's stock under one roof, bringing with it the workers previously based at several temporary storage facilities outside Bradford.

Andy Hill, managing director of Damartex, of which Damart is a subsidiary, said he expected the new warehouse to be able to create 40 extra jobs over the next few months.

"Most of the old buildings on the Steeton site were not designed for their current purpose, one of which was an old munitions factory," he said. "We knew that the old facilities were not able to satisfy the growth we were planning for.

"The new warehouse will be able to accommodate our growth capacity for the next three to five years."

The new warehouse got its official opening this week, with chairman Paul Georges Despatures and longest-serving employee Pat Ratcliffe on tape-cutting duties.

The core of Damart's customer base does remain the senior shopper - the average customer age is 67. However Mr Hill says one of the company's biggest challenge is to continually adapt to the tastes and personalities of each coming generation.

"Pre-war generations tend to be fairly conservative and very family-orientated whereas the new senior is still quite independent and aspirational," he said. "To appeal to all of these under one brand is quite a challenge."

Damart is also looking to tap into the 45 to 50-year-old market as well as producing a new specialist catalogue for older clients. However the Damart brand is not just confined to sales via its catalogues and Mr Hill says the firm is well on the way to becoming a multi-channel business.

Just last week it opened its first new shop in 15 years, in Southport. And, rather then competing with internet shopping companies, Damart has joined in, with ten per cent of its sales coming via the net.

Mr Hill said: "I went along to the opening of the new shop and the response from shoppers was phenomenal, with people telling me how happy they are that we have opened up a store in their town.

"The strength of the brand is really what drives us and we hope to build on our retail wing by opening up more stores soon."

Damart's growth is not just confined to the UK. Last December it began trading in America. Mr Hill said it initially began small-scale but is now expanding, despite unusual trading circumstances.

"Around 70 per cent of our customers are female in the States, yet 70 per cent of the products we sell are for men - meaning we have to make sure our marketing caters for this."

Despite branching into new areas and constantly adapting to the changing face of its customer base, the bedrock of the business remains very familiar to the catalogue company set up by two French brothers in the 1950s.

e-mail: mark.casci@bradford.newsquest.co.uk