Page last updated at 15:10 GMT, Saturday, 27 December 2008

Mournful mood in Woolies' aisles

By Stephen Robb
BBC News, Notting Hill, West London

Woolworths poster
The closure of more than 800 shops is being staggered until 5 January
"Biggest ever sale," announce luminous posters, over the heads of thrifty shoppers trawling the aisles in search of bargains.

Two days after Christmas, the setting could be any shop across the UK trying to seduce customers with its freshly-discounted wares.

But there is a desperate poignancy to the posters in this particular West London store, for this "biggest ever sale" is also destined to be its last.

The Notting Hill branch of Woolworths is one of more than 200 of the chain's outlets closing on Saturday, with all 807 due to shut their doors by 5 January.

Everything must go

After the retailer called in administrators owing to debts of 385m, everything must go - literally.

"All store fixtures, fittings & equipment for sale!" announces a single, also luminous poster immediately inside the front doors.

Small posters underneath advertise sections of staff lockers for 30 each, while a "very large safe" will set someone back 300.

Woolworths storefront
Retailers taking on the locations may find jobs for Woolworths staff
One lucky customer has already picked up a "used microwave", presumably with years of staff-room service behind it, for a mere 3.

DIY goods and children's clothes, stationery and greeting cards, toys and sweets - including Woolworths' iconic Pic 'n' Mix - comprise the bulk of the dwindling stock in the store's final hours.

Shoppers who find plenty among that to separate them from their cash can get a proper metal shopping basket to carry it all home in for another 1.

"It's one of my favourite stores. I'm really, really upset," says Debbie Anderson.

"I was going to lay flowers," she says, typifying the mournful mood among customers.

The 49-year-old, emerging with a small carrier bag containing pens, envelopes and a shower curtain, adds: "This is the only sort of store of this kind in the area, that sells everything across the board from paint to garden equipment - a sort of old-fashioned store.

"I don't even know where to go for stuff that Woolworths used to sell."

"They were very good on crockery, kitchen-ware, very good on paper goods, nice notebooks," says 68-year-old Liz Haggard.

Liz Haggard
Staff have been polite and nice to people despite the chaos. There has been no sense of resentment
Customer Liz Haggard
On her final visit to a store she has been using throughout the 25 years she has lived in the area, she bought 10 balls of rubber bands.

"Woolworths are the only place I know I can get them," she says.

The most high-profile casualty of the economic downturn on the UK High Street has been trading in Britain for just under 100 years.

Ms Haggard adds: "I am old enough to remember early Woolworths - it's sort of folk memories."

Alison Peters, 45, says she saw on the news that her local Woolworths was closing and wanted to look in one last time "out of nostalgia".

But she admits that she hasn't bought anything in there in years. "There is nothing in there that I would buy really."

Out of work

Local shopkeepers and Portobello Road Market traders express fears that Woolworths' closure nearby can only worsen tough economic conditions, but their primary concern today is for friends left out of work.

The Notting Hill branch of Woolworths employed 42 staff, among 27,000 permanent and temporary employees set to lose their jobs across the UK.

Freddie Allen
Stall-holder Freddie Allen fears for the future of Portobello Road Market
Freddie Allen, 63, who runs the fruit and vegetable stall opposite Woolworths, says: "I have been looking at this store since I was six or seven years old.

"I have known all the staff all my life here. They are all my friends. We get on great because we work together."

"The [government] could have stepped in and bailed them out," he adds.

"How much is it going to cost to put 27,000 people on welfare? I know they could have bailed it out. It's terrible."

Chamberline Jeffrey, 32, who runs Andea jewellery store four doors down, says Woolworths staff often shopped in her store, receiving a "neighbours" discount, and several had become friends.

"It's very sad," she says. She adds: "I am sure it will affect us because we are very close - we share customers."

'Merry Christmas'

Back in Notting Hill Woolworths, a single, polite, slow but steadily-moving queue proceeds through the checkout.

A security guard silently looks on, occasionally glancing up at a CCTV screen. The in-house music has already been disconnected.

A senior member of staff delivers coffees and teas to her workers at their posts.

"The staff have been fantastic," says Ms Haggard.

"They have never been mournful. They have been polite and nice to people despite the chaos. There has been no sense of resentment."

Messages taped to the shop doors, about to be locked for good, read: "Merry Christmas from all at Woolworths."

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