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What is the point of Woolworths?

Woolworths in Glasgow

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

A year away from its centenary, Woolworths is set to go into administration. But it's still much loved and millions of shoppers go through its doors every week. To buy what?

Few American imports have been taken so fondly to British hearts as Woolworths.

Even its nickname suggests as much. While "Smiths" and "Marks" could claim to be High Street equivalents, they're just abbreviations of convenience. "Woolies" resonates with real affection.

It's a love borne out of childhood visits to the pick 'n' mix, or a few years later for the seven-inch single storming the charts. Or to the only photo booth in town, found in the corner next to the ironing boards and bean bags.

Or that frantic, last-minute Christmas Eve shopping dash to bag a Daniel O'Donnell calendar, a car scratch remover and a Ronco CD player that resembles a football.

Unknown Woolworths store, 1955
Christmas rush, 1950s-style

But while memories remain as strong as ever, the reality of 2008 is that Woolworths is facing collapse after failing to find a buyer.

A visit to its branch in Elephant and Castle in south London might offer some clues to its present plight. There are a couple of dozen shoppers - mostly mothers with buggies - but few are walking out with Woolworths bags.

Confectionery and half-price toys fill the aisles while music, an area in which it led the market until the 1990s, now occupies a small corner, where a newly-released compilation CD will set you back a whopping 13.71. There's a healthy selection of cheap DVDs - the sight of an obscure Danny DeVito film The Oh in Ohio going for 2 means you can only be in Woolies - and computer games.

But it's the Aladdin's Cave that sets Woolies apart. Where under the same roof could you buy a magnifying LED headlight (10) and a cheese grater (3.50)?

Fouad Mohammed
I go there about three times a week, usually for kids clothes like a Spiderman outfit and there's a good selection of toys
Fouad Mohammed

Yes, there's incoherence in the layout - the sun lotion is next to the cookie jars next to the school bags next to the calendars. But maybe that's part of its charm, making surprises like a wooden vintage edition of Monopoly more unexpected and satisfying. And the staff at this branch are always helpful when customers ask for assistance.

So what are shoppers buying? Judging by the odd empty shelf, the wine glasses, pillows and cordless kettles, all carrying Woolies' own Worth-It brand (a successor to the late, lamented Winfield), are big draws. But it's the toys and children's clothes that people are walking out with.

Rubber gloves

For nearly 60 years, Maureen Dulieu has been shopping at Woolworths. On this occasion, she went in looking for a Barbie pencil case and ended up with three pairs of rubber gloves and a diary.

"It used to cater for everyone. Anything to do with sewing and embroidery. You could go in and get elastic and cotton reels but now there's not enough stuff, not enough stocking-fillers, not enough household goods like floor mops and sponges. It's lost its way, like M&S, but that got better."

Fouad Mohammed, 37, emerges with a Power Rangers toy set and a DVD, both for his son Eamon, four.

"I go there about three times a week, usually for kids clothes like a Spiderman outfit and there's a good selection of toys. Sometimes they sell three- for-two or half-price. It's always stuff for the children, never for me."

William and Kate wedding souvenir
William and Kate 'engagement' souvenirs were scrapped

Other shoppers made surprise purchases. "I only go there for stationery for university, it's cheap," says Melissa Felix, 30, who's clutching a pick 'n' mix bag. "But today I didn't get any, then I saw the sweets. I used to get them when I was little."

Although she'd be sad to see it close, she says, Tesco and Asda offer a similar selection of goods you can pick up while you're buying your food.

The Woolworths story began stateside on 21 June, 1879, in Pennsylvania. Frank Woolworth opened his first store with the revolutionary idea of setting a fixed price for his goods, either five or 10 cents - not unlike the Poundstretchers and Poundlands of today.

They soon spread across the US and in 1909 he opened the first branch in the UK in Liverpool, after noting that "a good penny and sixpence store, run by a live Yankee, would be a sensation here". Sure enough, 350 stores opened between the wars.

THE WOOLWORTHS STORY
Frank Woolworth
1873: Frank W Woolworth becomes a sales assistant in New York
1879: Opens first store in Pennsylvania
1909: Opens first British general store in Liverpool and more follow across north of England
1970s: Boomtime. Drops the "FW" from its store names
1982: UK business is sold to Paternoster. Now British owned
2001: Becomes a plc

It was the first chain to make its own brand items, so minimising its dependence on suppliers. The template even extended to music, with Embassy Records making cover versions of hits in the 1960s, when the chain was at its peak with more than 1,000 shops across the UK.

Decline began during the 1970s. New owners took over in 1982 and its demise has been mirrored by the ascent of the large supermarkets.

Ironically, the reason why it was so successful nearly 100 years ago is the same reason why it's now in trouble, says Greg Hodge of Planet Retail.

"They brought everything under one roof and you could go to a place that sold everything. Now that charm has worn off."

If you were starting now and you wanted to invent a retailer, you wouldn't invent Woolworths, he says. "As a shopping composition, it's not clear what it is. You could say it has an identity crisis.

"You tend to go there only ever as a last resort when everyone else has run out of what you want. The British have an empathy and an emotional attachment to it but if you talk to consumers they don't know when they last bought anything of any value there."

It has suffered for two reasons, he says. First the large supermarkets started selling non-foods and then like all music retailers it was hugely undermined by websites like Amazon.

"These two problems really hit it but it's stood still a bit. It tried to offer cheaper CDs and improved its private label range Worth-It, which did well for school uniform. It branched out into very cheap toys, which had relative success.

"The sad thing is that people I speak to still have a place in their hearts for it but it tends to be elderly or people with children. But even they can look at the toys and see they can get them cheaper at Tesco."

'No tears'

When asked what are its strengths, a spokesman for Woolworths says the answer lies in its annual report, which says the chain focuses on "the home, family and entertainment", although the chairman notes in his statement that it is now less dependent on CDs and has moved more towards books and computer games.

Jeremy Baker, a retail lecturer from London Metropolitan University, says the downturn is forcing through some changes which were already inevitable.

Unknown Woolworths store in the US
Where it all began, in the US

"The demise of Woolworths is one of those. People have been talking about it for years and it was going to come at some point and the crisis just speeds up change.

"It's not that sad, because it shows the British consumer has got used to a higher and higher standard every year and Woolworths was left behind."

The in-store environment isn't that good and you're not sure what they're good at, he says. If you want a cheap suit you think of Primark and if you want expensive food you think of Waitrose, but there are no items to associate with Woolworths. It has no unique qualities.

"Going into Primark, the whole atmosphere says 'It's fine, this is cheap' but you feel good about yourself," he says. "But you feel a loser going into Woolworths."

There is still hope of an M&S-style reinvention. But should Woolies go under, Britain won't just have lost a chainstore, it will have lost an institution.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Poor old Wollies seems to be it's own worst enemy. The "Big W" in Loughborough is a wonderful shop, clean, well ordered, what you want, plenty of ideas at very good prices. Contrast that with the Woolies in Nottingham where you feel as if you've stumbled across a serious case of industrial scale fly-tipping at a badly organised jumble sale. A real shame.
Jim E, Nottingham

I work in Woolworths on the Island. I'm only at a young age, however people who have been there for many years have nothing to look forward to as the company have cut all luxuries. It needs to sort itself out as a company, not everyone wants toys, CDs/DVDs or games. I have many customers complaining to me about the fact that we do not have tights or more homewares. Woolworths need to listen to their customers and see what they want or they will not survive.
Chelsey, Isle of Wight

I go there almost every week for something. It has the cheapest stationery of anywhere I know, with excellent range, quality and design. The household and kitchen section stocks all the basics and again with a good range of quality and design. It has a superb selection of children's clothes and toys. If I need a birthday card but don't want to pay 2 or have a limited selection, I know I can get it from Woolworths. In the past few months I have done the rounds of many shops and gone back to Woolworths for the cheapest and best hot water bottle, fleece rug, plain flat sheets, dish rack, batteries and light bulbs. It's all very well having large superstores but all too often those need their customers to have a car, or be able to walk for miles across a vast car park and around the aisles. Woolworths is a far greener alternative - a one-stop shop, and all on your friendly High Street. Many a town would find its other shops suffered enormously if Woolworths were not there to bring people out for the miscellaneous necessities that it does so well - and without Woolworths' competition many will put their prices up.
Liz, London

I haven't shopped in Woolies for more than 20 years. I attempted to about two years ago, looking for simple kitchen ware (baking and roasting trays actually), but they had nothing suitable. All their space was devoted to very poor quality children's fancy dress costumes.
Sarah, Birmingham, UK

I disagree that you feel a loser going into Woolworths. Last week I went into Woolworths in Munich for comfort (bright light and warmth, it is freezing here), as I am going through a particularly bleak time at the moment. Came out with some chocolate, socks for my son and a Playmobil Egyptian pyramid for my daughter's Christmas present.
Isabella Jackman, Munich, Germany

What with Primark, shops & Asda all offering the same quality merchandise as Woolies at cheaper prices, we now have too much choice. In the 70/80s you went to Woolies for everything you needed for the home and family, and the supermarket for food. Now the supermarkets offer everything for the home, family and the insurance to protect it all. I love shops and 99p shops and for ages have prayed our High Street would support these shops. Now we have two such shops for the Christmas period only, I now feel guilty that this may just be the last nail in Woolies coffin for our High Street.
Lynn H, berkshire

It's a real shame that this is happening to even such large chains as Woolies. Not only is it the small independent stores that are losing out and closing down due to Tesco, Asda etc, but now even large chain stores. It will be a sad sad day when the only shops left will be giant supermarket retail parks all so big they can monopolise the industry for cheap goods. People need to stop thinking about WHERE it's cheaper, and think about WHY its cheaper.
DP, Portsmouth

I grew up with Woolworths, I went every week usually twice. I used to get ham from there and all my records and still get Christmas presents from there because it is so random. I will shed a tear if Woolworths goes, it is like an old friend.
Pete Garbett, Bracknell, Berks

I beg to differ with Mr Baker. Every year in the run-up to Christmas, I wonder where to go to get my father's box of Black Magic. The first place I think of is Woolworths, I always associate Black Magic's with Woolworths. Where am I going to go to get the Black Magic now?
Alastair Pearce, London

I will be very sad to see Woolies go. Our local one (Angel, Islington) closed a few months ago, and now I have nowhere close to go for kids' party stuff and presents. The next closest thing is Argos, but you can't look at the product before you buy. Woolworths was fantastic for cheapy household stuff, stationery and kids stuff. You could always pick up a bargain. I'll miss you Woolies!
Tasha , London

No identity is right, it sells so much but when you think of the entire brand you don't really think of anything and that's why people will just go somewhere else. Today the supermarkets rule all and from out of this global super power the specialised niche retailers plug the gap to offer a wonderful tailored solution to meet each person's personal needs. In 1879 it was everything under one roof for a fixed price. In 2008 it's a specialised service offering choice and solutions to match you. I'm sad but change sometimes means letting go of things you like.
Alastair

Woolworths is my favourite shop. I can get haberdashery items (try finding an old fashioned haberdashers now); music items, games, kitchen utensils and children's clothes. Woolworths do all these things at a reasonable price and many people would be sorry to see Woolworths cease to exist.
Julie, Bicester, UK

I remember going into Woolies and stealing fishing accessories when I was a kid. Wrote it in my diary which my mum read and she made up a story that someone from Woolies had come round about it and she made me send a 10 shilling note anonymously to them. Also brought my very first record from them. Crackling Rosie by Neil Diamond. Will be sad to see it go.
Neil, Reading

I'm not at all surprised Woolworths are in trouble. The stock they carry is poor quality, and not usually well priced. The staff in all the Woolworths branches in this area are rude and unhelpful.
Mikey, Newport, South Wales, UK

Woolworth is a very confusing store, it does not know what it wants to be. Jack of all trades, master of none. It's got a few CDs, a few DVDs (chart only of course, so you may as well go to HMV or Zavvi), a selection of mostly rubbish household items (so you may as well go to Argos). There is of course the Pick N Mix, but that's about it. I'll give them a fiver for their chain, gut it, and turn it into a giant all you can eat buffet pick and mix store.
Mark G, Weymouth, UK

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