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Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Monday, 13 April 2009 14:12 UK
'Mr Woolies' keeps memories alive

Paul Seaton
Paul Seaton collected his memories over 25 years at Woolworths

Loyalty may not have saved Woolworths from the administrators, but it certainly remains strong among the company's 27,000 staff who lost their jobs.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Paul Seaton's front room. A testimony to why Woolworths was so loved, Mr Seaton's array of memorabilia is a museum-like tribute to a company which was at the heart of the British high street for 99 years.

An original cash till register, early pic 'n' mix for which Woolworths was famous, postcards of figures from the Great War, Beatles memorabilia, are all items which exemplify the "Woolies" ethos to be an everyday store with something for everyone.

Mass production was key to the success of a brand which began life as a threepence or sixpence store. Originally an American company, founder Frank Woolworth came to the UK to open his first store in Liverpool in 1909. Spanning generations of shoppers, Woolworths specialised in children's toys and entertainment. But with the economy facing crisis in 2008, Woolies was facing closure.

The last store may have firmly shut its doors in January this year, but for Mr Seaton a new door was opening. On getting home from his last day of a Woolworths career that spanned 25 years, he went online to set up Woolworths Reunited.

Finding work

The website aims to help ex-Woolworths employees find new jobs. Woolies employees can register with the site whilst potential employers advertise directly to them. So far the site has helped approximately 4,000 people find work.

An ol style cash till register
A cash till register, one of Mr Seaton's many items from his Woolies collection

It is a one-man operation but Mr Seaton is humble about his success.

"I don't think anyone would ever say that a website gave them a job… because obviously they did their CV and they went and did the interview and they had the quality and calibre to be able to do that," he said.

In fact, he thinks it is what any good manager should do.

"Woolworths were kind enough to send a shed load of cash round to my bank every month for 25 years and the very least I can do…is to try and do right by some of those people…I see that as being a duty of people who take senior management positions in companies, that's actually what we should expect of them."

The site has attracted the attention of some of Britain's leading high street brands and currently has over 8,000 vacancies advertised, the majority in retailing. Even the government's Jobscentre Plus is using his website to find potential employees.

Mr Seaton believes this is testament to the professionalism of Woolworths' staff, many of whom spent decades with the company.

"What Woolworths Reunited tries to do is actually to focus on all the positive stuff that says there are a hell of a lot of really well-trained, very hard working people who would be a credit to any retail store."


People have even left messages on the website which at first was a worry for Mr Seaton.

Black and white photo of an old woolworths store with people walking in front on the pavement
Woolworths began life as a threepence and sixpence store

"I thought aye, aye, here we go, so us the management are obviously going to get some criticism coming out of this. What really surprised me, and about 1,800 people have left a message, is that actually there's so little bitterness and blame in it.

"People have written messages that say things like, thank you for turning a boy into a retailer and over 25 years for getting me much further than I thought that I would ever go in my life."

He shares this attachment to Woolworths where he started his career as a management trainee, working his way up to the senior ranks of the company. He, like the crowds of shoppers and staff members, remembers an emotional last day.

"It is absolutely heartbreaking particularly to see stores that we invested in, very recently spent millions of pounds on getting the shop fit up to standard and so on, actually being dismantled and the shop fittings sold off for next to nothing," he said.

Death of the high street

Despite the achievements of Woolworths Reunited, Mr Seaton is worried about the lasting effects of the closure of Woolworths.

"My big concern is for store colleagues who worked damn hard for Woolworths over a long period of time, sometimes for several generations, actually now in towns that won't have any shops for them to come and work in."

Two pick 'n' mix jars
The shop became famous for its selection of pic 'n' mix

For Mr Seaton the demise of Woolworths is a symptom of something more lasting. "The really sad bit is where we are starting to see a bit of the death of the high street," he explains. "Some of the feedback I've picked up from people is actually about small rural communities and places further away from London where Woolworths was the dominant shop."

He believes this has a knock-on effect on smaller shops that relied on the footfall through Woolworths who now face tougher times as people start to shop out of town.

But Mr Seaton is confident the Woolworths legacy will live on, and not just amongst his personal memorabilia or through his website.

"There is no doubt that prices across Britain are vastly much cheaper for having known Woolworths over that 100 years because Woolworths has been at the forefront all the time of dropping prices," he said.

Socially too, he sees a Woolworths influence, in what he sees as a "classless type of shopping" that is the norm today. "Woolworths pioneered the sort of store where upstairs and downstairs actually go to the same shop and get the same kind of service."

Life after Woolies
Monday, 13 April 2009, 13:12 GMT |  Panorama
In pictures: Life after Woolies
Monday, 13 April 2009, 13:01 GMT |  Panorama


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