Page last updated at 01:08 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

My sadness at Woolworths' demise

By James Clarke
BBC News

Woolworths in Devonshire Road, Bexhill
Woolworths in Bexhill - where I started my working life

For some people the collapse of Woolworths is the sad end of an era on the British High Street, for others it marks the closure of a dated store they had not visited in ages.

But for me it means the demise of the place where I had my first job.

I worked in Woolworths for nearly five years - starting the month after my 15th birthday and not leaving until I went to university shortly before I turned 20.

The Woolworths I was employed by between 1990 and 1995 showed no signs of going out of business - it seemed an integral part of the country's retail trade.

The branch where I worked - store number 625 in Bexhill in East Sussex - was the largest store in the town's main shopping street, and has remained so until becoming one of the final 200 Woolworths to close, on Tuesday.

Antiquated tills

I started out working four hours on a Saturday afternoon for the princely sum of 1.92 an hour, while studying for my GCSEs.

I stayed there while doing my A levels and then worked full time on the music and video counter in a "gap year" that was perhaps less glamorous than travelling the world, but provided me with some valuable funds to take to university.

The role as jack of all trades but apparent master of none has been highlighted by many as the very reason for Woolworths' collapse - but it was a godsend to the people of a small town

The wages I earned there also paid for my first car - a bright yellow Ford Fiesta bought as an 18-year-old - and numerous trips to the pub.

The money gave me independence, but Woolworths helped me grow up in other ways too.

The job helped me learn about responsibility and brought me out of my shell as I developed from a shy schoolboy into the more confident young man I was by the time I left.

Like me, the shop went through plenty of changes in that five years.

When I started we did not accept debit cards and had antiquated tills which worked by the checkout staff tapping in prices and three-figure department codes.

These gave way to the modern barcode-scanning equipment that is now commonplace in any shop.

And the unflattering uniform of cream polyester-rich shirt, blue tie and horrible cheap blue trousers in which I started my Woolworths career was replaced by a new outfit designed by Jeff Banks.

Empty shelves on the last day of trading at Woolworths in Dover, Kent
The fate which has befallen all 800 branches

To my delight it was a stylish green shirt with a patterned brown tie and smart trousers, which, if you had not known it was a Woolworths' uniform, might not have looked out of place on a night out.

I was there when Woolies stopped selling vinyl records but also for the start of legalised Sunday trading and the launch of the National Lottery - I was selling tickets on the first day of that phenomenon in November 1994.

My fellow workers varied from a cluster of other young people who were at school or college - my older sister also worked there when I started - to others who had been there for years and knew the shop inside out. At least one from my time has stayed there until the store's closure.

There were moments of fun - getting stuck in the rickety lift was a rite of passage and when the manager fell asleep in the staffroom in front of Grandstand one Saturday lunchtime nobody was brave enough to wake him up.

Another time I caused laughter among my colleagues by failing to notice I was serving a member of the EastEnders cast who was starring in the town's pantomime.

Easter eggs

Woolworths at the time prided itself on being the UK's biggest retailer of confectionery.

I lost count of the number of times elderly customers - who would probably have reacted with disgust if they had seen a youngster stealing something - came to the till to pay for their "pic 'n' mix" brazenly chewing a sweet they clearly had no intention of paying for.

In addition to the many household name chocolate bars and sweets we sold, there were the remarkably popular own-brand chewy bootlaces and an array of confectionery you never seemed to see anywhere else.

Names such as Trolliburgers and Lovell's Milky Lunch spring to mind a decade-and-a-half later.

Customers buying pic 'n' mix from Woolworths in Islington in 2003
How it used to be - pic 'n' mix attracting shoppers of all ages

And in Bexhill in the early 90s Woolworths was the place to go if you wanted a video, CD or cassette - for most of my time working there it was the only place in the entire town you could buy a single from the charts.

We were always rushed off our feet the day any new Disney video came out, just as we were throughout every December. And at Easter the chocolate eggs disappeared off the shelves faster than you could put them out on display.

But it was also an obvious place to shop for items as varied as fuses, plants and children's clothing. And while this role as jack of all trades but apparent master of none has been highlighted by many as the very reason for Woolworths' collapse, it was a godsend to the people of a small town.

While in big cities that are home to all the major high street stores the disappearance of Woolworths might not really be felt, I think it will be in places like Bexhill, where it remained the obvious place to go for toys or DVDs if you did not fancy leaving town for Hastings or Eastbourne.

Woolies had changed since my time - the advent of internet shopping for CDs and DVDs had an impact, as did the rise of pound shops and the fact that supermarkets now stock many of the non-food items Woolworths sold.

But I for one will miss it - and so will small towns like Bexhill all over the UK.

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