I was out at the country on the tenth ‘anniversary’ of the closure of the last Woolworths store in the UK – 6th January to be exact. I had already contributed to an element of the ‘celebration’/‘remembrance’, so didn’t feel too left out. In my case, any thoughts I had were rather put in the shade by the publication by – amongst other things – Woolworths expert Graham Soult (@soult, www.cannyinsights.com) on “#Woolies10 – Ten Years On: What has become of Woolworths’ Former Stores?” (Available for free download from www.cannyinsights.com).
Woolworths closed in the UK in 2009, some 10 months short of what would have been a centenary of operations in the country at the heart of Britain’s high streets. I have covered aspects of this before, and in particular how the company came to occupy a cultural and social place in the shopper’s psyche. Britain’s streetscape owes a debt to Woolworths as Kathryn Morrison’s excellent book shows, but it is far more than the physical buildings, as grand as many were. The nostalgia for Woolies demonstrates the affections held for it by many – though we should note that these people (me included) are probably (in some cases substantially) the wrong side of 50, as the company’s heyday was in the early 1980s at the very latest. I have noted their customer numbers before:
This nostalgia formed the basis of a half-hour radio programme on BBC Radio Scotland on the 23rd December. In it Kathryn Morrison, myself and employees, managers and customers of Woolworths explored the memories it evokes (see the BBC video teaser). As Kathryn noted on Twitter, nostalgic but also poignant.
So why does Woolworths continue to fascinate? Graham Soult in his report points out that the 807 stores that closed in the 2008/9 collapse are equivalent to 2500 Tesco Express Stores or 63 John Lewis stores. This was a collapse of a big retailer with a particular place in society (even if that place was a shadow of its former glories). That place was physical but also social and cultural. Most retailers never attain this combination of reputations.
#Woolies10 brings the story of this collapsed store estate up to date. I can not do justice to the effort and insight involved in preparing this short report. I would encourage anyone with an interest in Woolies or British high streets to read it. A few things were reinforced for me.
- The vast majority of stores remain in active use – the closure was not a location issue but a trading issue
- Almost half of the occupiers are those who to some degree have an offer similar to Woolworths – it was performance and operations that was the problem
- Churn is found in over a third of locations i.e. current occupiers are not those that took over the sites initially. A number of these are pound stores where the occupants have themselves collapsed or been taken over. Change is a retail phenomenon and indeed the sites have proved resilient.
There are many other points that the report notes, but space precludes coverage of all of these. The detail is well worth reflecting upon, including the relative small numbers of stores that have been demolished, been subdivided or gone away form retail use. The insight it gives to change over the last decade is fascinating.
There is also a nice coda on the ‘ghostsigns’ of Woolies. This is of course written in the shop architecture which often remains, but some more transient physical signs or fascias still exist or get uncovered. I was particularly pleased to see that one sign from a store has been incorporated in a bar/roof terrace now on the previous site!
Finally, and this is not a challenge to @soult to document all Woolworths everywhere! I was actually in South Africa on the anniversary date. Woolworths as the photos below show is alive and kicking there, though it bears no resemblance to the UK operation, sharing more than a little of its DNA with Marks and Spencer. But that as they say is a very different story.