Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Woolworths staff feel pain of closure

By Sarah Bell
BBC News

Margaret Bewley
Mrs Bewley's son-in-law and grandson also worked in the store

For weeks they have been valiantly plastering on smiles and keeping the tills ringing, but today many Woolworths staff will be shedding a tear as the last of the chain's stores close their doors for good.

More than 27,000 people have been left unemployed by the closure of 815 stores across the UK and many had served the company for more than 30 years.

For these people Woolworths, whose first store opened in Liverpool 100 years ago, was not just a job, but a way of life.

Margaret Bewley, 66, has worked in the store in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, for 45 years, for some of that time alongside her son-in-law and grandson.

"It's my last morning this morning and I'm a bit sad," she told the BBC News website, her voice breaking.

She first joined the company in 1957 - her service including breaks while she had children - and said "on the whole" Woolworths had been good to work for.

'Like a family'

"I have no regrets. A lot of people have worked here for many years, one for 45 years, another 40, 30, 28 years. There's a good camaraderie between staff and a lot of the customers," she said.

"We're like a family. You get to know about people's families, when they're upset you talk and help bring them round and when they have good news you're happy for them. It's a big part of what makes the job," she said.

Woolworths went into administration in November with debts of 385m and administrator Deloitte has been unable to find a buyer.

The last couple of months had been "quite difficult", with staff finding out more information through the media than from bosses, Mrs Bewley said.

"Customers would come in and say they'd heard this and that on the radio and TV and that was quite difficult to take.

I couldn't bear to see the place being cleared out like that, people coming in to buy the fixtures and take the place away
Margaret Bewley

"I think a lot of us didn't take it in, it was hard to believe it was coming to an end. That was the hardest part," she said.

Christmas was especially hard work as the store did not take on seasonal staff, she said, but customers had been supportive.

"We've had a lot of people coming in saying how sorry they are and how they're going to miss it - they couldn't see why we couldn't be saved," Mrs Bewley said.

Stores have been closing in stages since late December, cleared of stock plus fixtures and fittings, right down to office chairs and microwaves.

"I've seen a lot of changes over the years and I couldn't bear to see the place being cleared out like that, people coming in to buy the fixtures and take the place away. That started bringing it home," she said.

But Mrs Bewley is not ready to retire. "I've always worked, it helps to keep your brain active," she said.

'Tremendous team'

Carol Wood, 63, has worked at the store in Sutton, Surrey, for 17 years.

"Everyone is in tears already, it's going to be very hard," she said.

"It's been awful, absolutely awful. It's just one of those things, there's nothing you can do. It has been hard but you have to be professional and try and keep on going."

As in Cumbria, many of the Sutton staff had worked there for more than 20 years, with the store manager having started out as a Saturday boy.

"It's a tremendous team. It's just so sad it's come to this. We keep smiling and have a laugh and will hopefully be ok," Mrs Wood said.

I firmly believe these workers would be an asset to any retail business, which is why I am recommending them to other retailers
John Gorle

Woolworths had tried too hard to keep up with the High Street, she said.

"I think in the last five or six years it's changed a lot. What it was trying to do was to be more modern but that doesn't always happen. It should have kept how it was, it used to sell different things."

Shopworkers' union Usdaw said it was helping workers to find jobs with the retailers who might take over empty Woolworths stores.

National officer John Gorle said: "A lot of our members have worked for Woolworths for many years. These people are experienced retail staff who have remained committed and loyal to their business through a very difficult time.

"I firmly believe these workers would be an asset to any retail business, which is why I am recommending them to other retailers."

Woolworths is the most high-profile casualty of the downturn in the high street so far and the expectation is that thousands more retail staff could lose their jobs this year.

Other companies that have run into difficulties have included music and entertainment chain Zavvi, MFI and Adams, plus crystal and china firm Waterford Wedgwood.

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