Archive: Work

The Scottish Parliament’s newest MSP has found herself getting a bit of attention from the media because of her blog. Anne McLaughlin, known to bloggers as Indygal, has become the SNP’s newest Parliamentarian following the sudden and sad death of Bashir Ahmad.

The first story I saw about her blog in the media was actually not completely negative. The article noted that her blog has attracted a loyal following and seemed to appreciate the eclecticism of the blog.

I do like the Indygal blog. It is a friendly and humorous read. Anne McLaughlin’s new job also means that for the first time a Scottish Roundup editor has become an MSP. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few others become MSPs as well…

The way The Guardian‘s article was written did rather outline the potential for a less favourable spin to be put on the blog.

In other posts, she has branded the colourful Labour MSP Lord George Foulkes as an “ignoramous”, called Labour MSP Frank McAveety “the daftest man in the parliament” and described the historian and nationalist MSP Christopher Harvie as a “splendid nutter”. She branded an SNP councillor in Glasgow who defected to Labour in one uncompromising posting as The Ego.

Today there has been much huffing and puffing over a post from a couple of weeks ago containing “surreptitiously taken” photographs of goings-on inside the Parliament building. On the surface, claims that it damages the trust among MSPs and staff may seem reasonable. But looking at the post it’s clear that it was tongue-in-cheek and rather innocuous. The fuss stinks more of party political points scoring than anything else.

Still, it throws into focus once again the dangers of being a blogger. This is by no means the first time a blog post has thrown a spanner in the works of a political career.

By-election candidate Jody Dunn broke ground in 2004 when she blogged during her campaign in Hartlepool. The Guardian said she was blogging her way to by-election history. Unfortunately for Ms Dunn, it was her own political career that was history after the Labour campaign capitalised on a tongue-in-cheek post in which she described all the locals as “either drunk, flanked by an angry dog, or undressed.”

The Labour Party has felt the effects of ill-advised blogging as well. When Gavin Yates became the then-leader of the Scottish Labour Party Wendy Alexander’s head of communications, he probably wasn’t banking on being caught out by his own communications from the past. His blog had been less than complimentary about the Labour Party. But even though he never wrote anything truly damaging, the media still pounced on it, and it added to the long list of woes that beset Wendy Alexander’s brief period as Labour leader.

It all comes back to that old chestnut — how will an employer react to your blog? This is a sticky one that has long vexed me. Never before have the personal views and lives of people been on such public display. Not just through blogs either. The social networking phenomenon means that people are volunteering information about themselves to others in a way that was never possible.

It is near ubiquitous among people my age. My generation will run into these difficulties first. For instance, how might a potential employer react to all of this freely-available information? One point of view is that having this information out in the open will disadvantage you. But if everyone else is doing it, we are more or less back to square one.

Not quite though. Some people will have their illegal activities recorded on Facebook or Bebo. Others will have pristine profiles that arouse no suspicion, even of the consumption of a quiet pint. But might these people be seen as anti-social and one-dimensional by employers?

With my blog, I have basically constructed a database of my opinions going back to 2002, when I was 16 years old. I’m sure most people are quite thankful that their 16-year-old selves are long forgotten. Might I be disadvantaged by something I wrote three, four, five years ago? It might be something that now seems gauche, or an opinion that today I may not agree with — something I don’t even remember writing.

There have probably never been more laws preventing employers from discriminating against people with certain personal attributes. But ironically, today’s technology enables employers to access a wealth of candidates’ personal information like never before.

The thing is, we all volunteer that information. I think a few people from this generation will get their fingers burnt here. We like to think we are savvy enough to deal with it, but we are still fumbling around in the dark. We are all self-taught and we will make mistakes.

Future generations will be taught by their superiors, in the same way that parents today think nothing of teaching their children about etiquette and other rules of society. If I come to view my decision to blog openly from a young age as a mistake, I would warn any children I had not to. But I would have had no way of knowing.

Similarly, Anne McLaughlin was hardly to know two weeks ago that she would be an MSP and find her blogging activities land her in a spot of bother. I suspect in the long term this will blow over, but we’ll probably see a different style of Indygal — that is, indeed, if she returns to blogging at all.

One of the best Scottish political bloggers around, Kezia Dugdale, took her blog down for a few months, saying it was “far too risky a past-time”. Now she is back in the blogosphere, but “smarter with how, when and what I post.”

Ideally, it would be good if politicians could blog freely, without fearing that it will be used against them in the future. I very much agree with Bellgrove Belle. The faux-furore surrounding the Indygal blog is pretty much a non-story. But — in life in general, but particularly in the highly charged world of party politics — these things will happen.

That’s a real shame because I think people like Anne McLaughlin and Kezia Dugdale do a lot to help engage people in the political process.

One of the problems with social networking sites is that not everyone is on the same one. Thankfully I don’t find myself having to login to MySpace any more. But I would drop Bebo at a moment’s notice if I could get away with it. Unfortunately, a lot of my friends — particularly those from Fife, and perhaps those thatare younger in general than Facebookers — are on Bebo only. So I have to keep that account going.

I have a friend who refuses to join Facebook, partly because he is worried that it is just another website to sign up to, only to be replaced by the new flavour of the month as soon as he’s done it. I can sympathise with that. We’ve all been there with MySpace and now Bebo, and I probably have dozens of dormant web 2.0 accounts.

There is also the hassle involved with getting your head around a fancy new social network. So many people tell me they find Facebook too complicated. Meanwhile, Twitter is so disarmingly simple that it confuses and spooks many first-time users.

Another of my friend’s objections to Facebook involves the perception that it is too posh. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room, but when you think about it it’s difficult to avoid the fact that there is a class division in the way different types of people use different social networks. Danah Boyd wrote about the case of MySpace and Facebook in the USA two years ago. Today in the UK you could say a similar thing about Bebo and Facebook.

I guess that was inevitable given the exclusivity of Facebook in the early days. At first you had to be at Harvard to use it, then one of the Ivy League universities. Then you had to be at any University (this is when I joined). Then when it was a few years old it opened up to everyone — to howls of protest from many of the people who were already in the exclusive Facebook loop, as I recall. It’s probably fair to say that Facebookers think of themselves as being a cut above their chavvier Bebo-using counterparts — though functionally the sites are very similar.

When someone says to you, “you really should be on [social network x],” it is almost like being invited to a new (slightly posher) pub or restaurant. You’re used to eating out at Wetherspoons (well, that’s all they’ve got in Kirkcaldy — even Burger King upped sticks a few years ago). Now someone has invited you to Di Chez El Nom Nom, or something.

You wouldn’t have countenanced going in by yourself. But it would be rude to turn down the invitation. When you go in it’s a bit unfamiliar. What is the etiquette? What is the third spoon for? Why is my napkin folded into the vague shape of a cockerel? Am I allowed to poke you now, or is that just for special occasions? What is this exotic feature? What is that strange item on the menu and how do I pronounce it? It seems too complicated!

It feels awkward. You will make mistakes at first. But soon enough you will get a taste for it, and you won’t ever consider setting foot in Burger King again (I still like Wetherspoons though).

I got that experience when I signed up to LinkedIn, on the advice of Chris Applegate in the comments here. I’d passed LinkedIn on the street a number of times and peered in, but it didn’t look like the sort of place where I’d be welcome. It describes itself as being for “professionals”. Pah!

Well now Chris has given me the green light to enter, though I still don’t quite feel welcome. Anyone who thinks Facebook is complicated needs to check out LinkedIn. It took me quite a while to work out that really no-one there is interested in my favourite music or my drunken photos. It really is just a glorified (and inflexible) CV.

Even after I have filled in all my details and added a few connections, there is still a little power meter on my page telling me that my profile is only 70% complete! And moreover, I am less likely to appear in searches until I reach 100%. How rude!

But I can’t help thinking already that LinkedIn is the way to go. I mean, if I meet someone in a professional capacity, I might well want to connect with them online in some way. And with its complete candidness, with my personality presented warts and all, Facebook is probably not the way to do that.

So my friend is kind of right. If he signs up to Facebook, he will probably find it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself being asked by his peers to join LinkedIn. I myself wonder what even smarter social network I will end up having to sign up to next.

It seems like a pain at first. But I guess it’s just like dressing smartly for a job interview then lounging around in Pot Noodle-stained boxers in your house.

All of this is quite a long-winded way of saying that I have recently joined LinkedIn. If I know you, you are welcome to connect with me on it. I will probably go on my own adding spree soon. If you’re a veteran, please excuse my only 70% complete profile…

View Duncan Stephen's profile on LinkedIn

Having laid into the nasty side of human nature a few days ago, it is only fair that I redress the balance when I am reminded of the good side of people.

When I wrote about my (un)employment situation I wasn’t expecting to get such long responses from people offering advice. Not only did I get some great comments to the post, but I also got a couple of emails which I wasn’t expecting.

The fact that people took the time to write to me was a reminder of the nicer side of human nature. Thanks to all of you! :)

First of all, apologies to anyone who became sick of Woolworths when I published eight posts in a row about it. As you will have seen, “normal” service is on its way to resumption. Anyway, it was good to get it all off my chest, and is at least cheaper than seeing a therapist.

When I started writing this series, I thought I was going to end up with four posts. I ended up writing nine posts, and almost 10,000 words. I have a few final thoughts before I shut up about the subject for good.

A lot of people who have spoken to me about Woolworths have blamed the credit crunch and / or the government for the demise of Woolworths. As my posts have outlined, I think that is a gross simplification of the matter. If you look at the archives of newspapers you can see that people have seen this coming for a while, credit crunch or no credit crunch.

No doubt the staggering deterioration in the economy from October onwards accelerated things a lot. But there were fundamental problems with Woolworths, partly because it was burdened by almost 100 years of history which made it difficult to evolve.

A lot of people said they felt sorry for the way “they” were treating us. I couldn’t find it in myself to be angry (although that was admittedly made easier by the fact that I was planning on leaving anyway). No-one planned on the business failing. As for the administrators, it is their job to recover as much money from the situation as possible. That can mean being pretty ruthless and it cannot be an easy situation to manage.

A lot of customers asked me questions as though I had some kind of magical insider knowledge. When I said I didn’t know what was happening some people would say they thought I was being treated badly. I usually said, “I don’t think they even know what’s happening themselves.” I don’t know if they did know, but I imagine events were pretty fast-moving.

The reality was that I would have had a much better idea of what was happening if I stayed at home and watched the news. Lots of customers would come in and talk about what they had heard on the news, probably not even realising that we were totally unaware of whatever development had come about. It was unfortunate that things happened that way, but I doubt it can be helped.

The more I researched the history of Woolworths for this series of posts, the more I came to the conclusion that it was actually a fundamentally good business — or at least had the potential to be a good business. But throughout its history it has been maltreated in various ways and it ended up battered and bruised, limping on until finally keeling over this year.

For instance, the British arm of Woolworths was always more successful than its American parent. But until 1982 it sent most of its profits back to America. The Kingfisher years were, if anything, even worse.

Kingfisher failed to find an identity for itself and Woolworths was demerged in 2001. Under Kingfisher the stores had begun to crumble. Worst of all, just before the demerger Kingfisher sold all of Woolworths’s property, meaning that the new company had to lease it all back from landlords. Woolworths had crippling rent bills for the rest of its life. Woolworths still had huge takings, but it was brought down by massive overheads.

Arguably, the main beneficiary of the situation was B&Q. Kingfisher, rich having sold all of the Woolies property, continues to own B&Q to this day. But it was Woolworths which originally had the foresight to buy B&Q.

Home improvement and DIY was a big thing for Woolworths by the 1980s, as you can see in this advert from 1980. The products featured are almost entirely DIY-oriented.

Certain that DIY was a growth area, then-chairman of Woolworths Geoffrey Rogers bought the then-fledgling B&Q. The DIY offering in Woolworths was watered down to make way for B&Q. This might be one major reason why so many people cite Wilkinson as the store that replaced Woolworths.

Although Woolies appeared to have lost its way in the later years, there’s no doubt that most people had a real affection for the store. I saw lots of great blog posts during the final few weeks:

And some nice nostalgic offerings from more major news outlets:

Now, sadly, the shutter is down for good.

It's now staying shut

I see that the BBC’s iPM blog is asking for the human stories behind the current unemployment figures. Well, I am a human face of two recent news stories.

As readers are no doubt sick of reading by now, one of those stories was the loss of around 27,000 jobs at Woolworths. The other is the shortage of graduate-level jobs.

I graduated last summer. I didn’t have a job to walk into straight away because I wanted to take time to think about my future plans. Plus, the economy seemed bad enough at the time, and I thought maybe things would improve a bit later down the line. Now I have more or less decided what sort of work I would like to do, but of course the economy has deteriorated further and the jobs simply aren’t there.

The thing is, I’m not the only one. I can’t think of anyone who was in the same school year as me and has found a graduate-level job. I haven’t kept in touch with many people from university, but those I have heard from are either working in part-time retail jobs or more-or-less volunteering. I am still in touch with a lot of people from school, and no-one I know who was in the same year as me has found a job yet. I’m sure there are loads of people of my age who have found a decent job — I just don’t know any of them.

Many are doing five year courses anyway so are still studying. One or two have opted to go onto further study, while the rest of us are still searching for employment. And I’m not talking about people who got thirds from Shatsborough Poly by any means. I know someone who got a first at St Andrews University and is currently working in a shop.

A few months ago I still had the luxury of working in a shop. Of course, staying on at Woolies was never my long-term goal. It would have been useful as a back-up plan though. Not exactly a plan B, but maybe a plan C. As it stands, I’m still waiting for something to turn up in the realm of plan A, I need to wait and see with plan B, and plan C has totally fallen through already. For now, I’m onto plan D — D for “dole”.

So the news that there is a shortage of graduate places is not exactly news to me. I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve shared that experience with my acquaintances. What is really worrying is that a situation that was bad for the class of 2008 looks set to become even worse in 2009, with no sign of a recovery.

I had long feared that my degree wouldn’t be worth much. When I was at my lowest ebb, I thought that the whole higher education machine was a bit of a scam. When you are at school, you are pretty much told by everyone that going to university is the only option if you don’t want to spend your life being a street cleansing operative. Parents want you to go to university because of their pride. Schools want you to go to university, probably because of some kind of target, or league tables or something. And governments want you to go to university because of their peculiar obsession with having 50% of school leavers in higher education, and probably also to keep unemployment figures down as well.

Quite why I should have wanted to go to university is a bit of a mystery now. It was fairly clear early on that my degree wouldn’t be enough to set me apart, mostly because people began to tell us. There was that old joke about the university graduate who went on to become the best barman in town.

I could see why it was the case. The intellectual range of students is surprisingly large. I studied alongside many students who did not seem very bright (and spent much of their four years at university consuming alcohol), but were obviously quite good at exams. I think I am relatively smart and hard-working, but I don’t happen to perform so well at exams (my essay marks were always higher). Both types of student are likely to get a 2:1, but one of those types is surely the better for the employer. I have few ways of signalling to an employer which type I am.

The fact that employers do not value degrees very highly at all is evident in the fact that most blue chip companies will have job applicants sit their own exams, aptitude tests, diagrammatic reasoning tests and so on and so forth. Simply, there are too many degrees sloshing about in the system and the value of a degree is now so low that it tells you almost nothing about a person’s ability to do a job.

Maybe in the long run it will pay off and I will be pleased I put myself through four years of stress and horrible three hour round-trip commutes. In the meantime, I look at the people around me who have never been to university and think what I could be doing now had I taken their path. If I worked in a shop from the age of 16, I could be in management by now. If I left school at 16 and took up a trade such as plumbing, I would be perfectly comfortable and happy with my life already. I might even be running my own business. As things stand, I just feel a bit lost and I don’t know what my prospects are.

What I find notable is that the few opportunities I have had have arisen as a result of my blogging activities. No-one is interested in me because of my degree. There are plenty of people with one of them, and they’re all looking for jobs too.

The loss of my part time job last week came as a further blow to morale. Even though I was planning to leave my job at around this time anyway, there is nothing like being made redundant from a low-paid shelf-stacking job to make you feel like a spare part to the world. I need to remember that it’s not my fault.

Unemployment has affected me more than I thought it might. While I have never been unemployed in the official sense before, I have had periods of downtime before — summer breaks from university and the like. I thought it would feel like that. But it doesn’t. A whole lot of baggage comes with unemployment.

I have found myself being quite down at times. The scariest part is not the lack of income (for the time being) but the potential that I might end up isolated. You might not get along with all of your colleagues, but they are nonetheless like a second family. It’s a whole set of people who are there, prepared to listen to you and offer advice. Regular contact with people keeps you connected to society. With many of my friends either still studying or gallivanting somewhere else, I am a bit worried about becoming isolated.

Jennifer Tracey asks on the iPM blog if there is less of a stigma attached to being unemployed now that the economy is in such a bad state. I couldn’t help but feel rather self conscious as I took my first trip to the Jobcentre and I almost felt like the spotlight was on me as I walked up the steps to the entrance. I suppose that is quite silly really, because in this part of the world the Jobcentre’s steps are quite well used.

But what other people might think doesn’t bother me as much as what I think does. The prospect that I might be unable to positively contribute to society for the next while vexes me a lot.

The final month or so of working at Woolworths was without doubt the strangest. It was certainly an experience. The bright new posters, along with the masses of media publicity surrounding the problems Woolworths faced, attracted a different kind of customer. As friendly Woolies regulars browsed the aisles, the vultures started circling alongside them.

I had absolutely no problem whatsoever with people hunting for bargains. A few people told me they didn’t like to buy anything from Woolies because it was already so empty. But their concern was misplaced. The point of holding a sale, after all, is to persuade more people to buy. I took advantage of the situation myself, and now my attic is full of items that I have bought in preparation for moving out.

But the sheer rudeness of some of the bargain hunters was utterly uncalled for. There were a few stories in the media about abusive customers, summarised by Silversprite, and they are not too far off the mark. I have heard stories from other stores where staff members were physically abused, had shopping baskets thrown them and more. I personally didn’t encounter anything that could be described as clear-cut abuse, but I certainly encountered some uncalled for, insensitive, outright rudeness.

For instance, there was one pair of customers who acted in consort in what very much came across as a premeditated attempt to lay into a Woolworths worker (me) whose job was on the line. The man asked me, “So when is the real sale starting?” I raised my eyebrow because I couldn’t take the question seriously. After all, the business had just had its two biggest-ever days of sales — first when the “biggest ever sale” began, then again on the day it officially became a closing down sale. As such, our store was quite bare. Plus, these people were actually buying products. It can’t be that 20%, 30% and 50% off their items isn’t enough?

The pair kept looking at me. I laughed and said, “We don’t really need to reduce the prices further — we don’t have any stock left as it is.” It seemed to me to be a pretty watertight response. It seemed to have the man stumped. But the woman said, “That’s just because it’s Christmas.” The man chipped in again: “Exactly. EXACTLY.”

The tone of the man’s voice revealed that the pair were not simply being obtuse — they were being downright malicious. It was the fact that they had obviously decided together in advance that they were going to have a go at me simply because they were disappointed in what was on offer (despite the fact that they bought a basketful of goods!). That would be bad enough in normal times, but when I was mere weeks away from being made redundant it was utterly disgusting. The sheer vindictiveness of it had me in a rage for days.

Day 4 / 365 / 2009: Sign O The Times
Woolworths Kirkcaldy in the final few days
Photo credit: “Day 4 / 365 / 2009: Sign O The Times” by Frankie’s Photo’s

Another customer approached one of my colleagues and started ranting and raving about how our closing down sale was all a scam, complaining that it had “been on for weeks” (actually, at that point it had only been on for a few days, but even so, it inevitably takes a while to wind down a retail empire as large as Woolworths). I know some shops have been known to run fake closing down sales. But given the massive amount of news coverage that had been given to Woolies’ woes, I would have thought it was plain that ours was definitely not a scam and that person’s hectoring and aggressive attitude was totally uncalled for.

There was also the regular complaint about how all the items that were 50% off at the start of the sale were the worst items. This also seemed like quite a silly complaint, and tempted though I was explain to them that those products had the most money off precisely because they were the worst items, I feared that it would have been a waste of breath.

Matters were not helped when dodgy media reporting raised customer expectations. Some sloppy reporters on the television apparently said that everything in store was 50% off. Of course, at first most items were only 10% or 20% off. Some customers complained vociferously. It seemed to be beyond some people’s grasp that Woolworths was unable to control what the media says. What they say on breakfast television is a matter for Terry Wogan on Points of View, not me in Woolworths.

The situation wasn’t helped by the poorly designed Hilco sign that had “up to” in minuscule writing — the source of another heap of complaints. It was not unusual for customers to demand a price check on every item in a basket or two full with goods. For a few days, I feared that the words “Is there 50% off that?” would be my epitaph.

Then there were the people who knew full well what the percentage off the item was, but were either too lazy or too thick to work out the final price for themselves — despite the handy table provided! People wondered why we didn’t change the price labels, but with discounts changing almost on a daily basis (and three times a day in the final day) this simply wouldn’t have been manageable.

Because Woolworths was closing down, some people thought they had the right to get items for next to nothing. One person had the cheek to ask for more money off because he was buying eight James Bond DVDs — but they were already 50% off!

None of these people looked like charity cases, and Woolworths wasn’t a charity. It was a business. Prices may have been reduced, but there was no need for us to give away stock (with the possible exception of the dummy CCTV cameras). It seemed to be news to some people that the administrators were duty-bound to recover as much money as possible. The familiar protest, “But it doesn’t matter, you’re closing down anyway,” makes no sense. When a company is in the sort of situation Woolworths found itself in, that’s when it needs money the most — not least because it needs to pay its workers.

A couple of customers provided a chuckle though. Some people were utterly oblivious to the problems that had hit Woolworths. One customer, just a few days before Christmas — three weeks after Woolworths went into administration — seemed confused and asked me in all seriousness, “What’s happened to all your stock?”

Woolies had been a major news story for about a month, including being the lead item on major bulletins on at least two days. This person had not heard about Woolies on the television or the radio; she hadn’t read about it in the newspapers; she didn’t even hear about it through word of mouth. Most astonishingly of all, she completely failed to read the dozens and dozens of “CLOSING DOWN” posters that were by then emblazoned all over the store!

Of course, it goes without saying that the vast majority of customers were very pleasant. In the final few weeks I had a lot of wonderful conversations with people wishing me all the best for the future.

But a few nasty people had a major sympathy bypass. The overwhelming message from these customers was: “Screw your job, I WANT A BARGAIN.” My final weeks at Woolworths brought with them a glimpse into the nasty side of human nature.

On 5 November, a poster appeared in the staff area at Woolworths. “Remember remember the 5th of November,” it proclaimed. The copy went on to outline how Woolworths would celebrate 100 years on Britian’s High Streets on 5 November 2009, and to look out for the celebrations the company would be having throughout the year. As soon as I saw that poster I thought to myself, “they’ve jinxed it.”

The first sign that the curtain was coming down came on 19 November when it was revealed that Hilco, a firm that specialises in salvaging something out of retailers that are about to go out of business, were in talks to buy Woolworths for a nominal sum of £1. It was not terribly unusual to see something about Woolworths in the business news if you looked out for it. This did mean that a lot of stories came and went, and at first it was difficult to know how seriously to take the Hilco story. It sounded a good deal more severe than anything I had read before though.

As time went on it became pretty clear that Woolworths was in serious trouble. I knew things were really bad when a representative of Pitch (think JML, but not as good) came into our store to remove their stock and display stand. That was the sort of thing, I thought, that happened to a company in the last few days of its life.

That week Woolworths launched a last-gasp sales drive. I advertised it on this very blog. Here, though, was another demonstration of the creaking, clunky Woolworths systems in action. The same week, Marks & Spencer also had 20% off everything. They had the good sense, though, to do it properly and make sure people knew about it. They got stacks of free publicity on the news.

Woolworths, on the other hand, just extended the annual friends and family offer at the last minute. There were no signs. There was no advertising. The company relied on word of mouth. Word of mouth is all very well if you have a long time to let the word spread. But this was an emergency situation — the company basically had a life expectancy of a few days.

If the customer didn’t know about the 20% off deal, it was a special surprise for when they reached the till. But what a fat lot of good that would have done. There was someone who was willing to pay full price. Meanwhile, the people at the margin who would be swayed by a 20% off deal were none the wiser.

I appreciate that it was a last-minute thing, and Woolworths certainly didn’t have the money to produce nice signs or place press advertisements. But even so, it felt like such an inept way to run an important sale. Woolworths couldn’t even run a promotion properly to save its life, literally.

The 20% off event brought an early taste of things to come in the form of vultures. Towards the end of the 20% off event, our policy changed and we stopped simply giving the discount to everyone, instead only giving it to people who asked for it. Unfortunately, this came as a surprise to one customer who, having inspected her receipt, re-joined the queue and decided to shriek at the top of her voice, “Ahm I no gettin 20% aff?!” No “please” or “thank you” or anything. How rude!

I was serving a different customer at the time, and I had to offer her the 20% off as well out of sheer embarrassment. This meant I had to laboriously scan all of her items through the till again. While I did this, the rude lady started mumbling things like, “We’re no wantin you to close down”, even though her thoroughly unappreciative behaviour indicated otherwise. I felt sorry for the customer I was serving because she looked very uncomfortable about it.

The rude customer came back again later that week, and she literally slammed her items onto the cash desk and peered at me saying, “20% aff” — sans “please” or “thank you” once again. How can someone lack such basic manners?!

On 26 November, while the 20% off promotion was still running, Woolworths went into administration. Hilco, having failed to pull off its proposed purchase of the business, was brought in by the administrators to run the show anyway. They brought with them a range of tacky, luminous posters, loudly advertising “Woolworths biggest ever sale”.

Overnight, it was like working in a different store. Any new customers who came into Woolies in its final few weeks thinking that the shop always looked like that will have the wrong end of the stick. I am quite sure that most of the various posters and signs that were supplied to us were generic and designed for use in any store. Very few of them carried any kind of Woolworths branding. I am also certain that I have seen the little “X% OFF” cards in another shop. No doubt one day I will see them in another distressed Hilco-run retailer and I will get disturbing flashbacks.

As the crisis unfolded, many people commented on how sad it was to see Woolies the way it was. When the sales started, products flew off the shelves. At that point we were still getting deliveries, but nowhere near enough to keep the shelves looking full. Stock was gradually moved to the front of the store and empty bays had more garish “closing down” posters stuck on them.

Eventually it got to the stage where there was so little stock that we put a cordon up at the corner of the L-shaped store and the second entrance was shut for good. As the days went on the cordon moved up and up until the store was roughly (I guess) a fifth of the size it used to be. On the other side of the cordon, the fixtures were already being removed, leaving just the bare brick walls. A sad sight indeed.

Already dismantled

One widespread criticism of Woolworths was that its stores were in bad nick. There’s no question that a lot of buildings were old and hadn’t really been looked after properly. The labyrinthine stockrooms of the Leith store had to be seen to be believed! But I never saw Woolworths stores as particularly drab. What perhaps hurt the most about this frequent comment was the fact that Woolworths had recently embarked on an extensive re-fit programme that plainly hadn’t worked.

Some press reports noted that if Woolies had seen through Christmas there would have been “yet another revamp“. A few months before Woolworths closed for good, its logo changed to a self-consciously modern all-lower case affair. At least one new store’s workers in Northern Ireland had new black uniforms.

Maybe a new image was required, but latterly there was a strange focus on minutiae of the store set-up. The rules by which our in-store displays were set up were tweaked. We were always told to keep to the “planogram” (the plan which our displays were to adhere to). But beforehad we had been encouraged none the less to fill the shelves with as much stock as possible.

Now we had to adhere to the planogram exactly as it appeared on the page, right down to having the shelves on the right notches. I saw one person leave a comment on a news story caustically pointing out, maybe if area managers weren’t sent around counting shelf notches Woolies wouldn’t have got itself into such a mess.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the size of products as they appeared on the planogram often bore no relation to their size in real life. Someone in head office obviously worked out how to squeeze a big picture of a product onto a small picture of a shelf, but they forgot that you can’t so easily squeeze a physical box. Problems were exacerbated whenever a product’s packaging changed, which is more often than you might think.

The obsession with shelf heights pointed to an unhealthy interest in homogeneity. The idea was seemingly to make Woolworths stores up and down the country stock exactly the same products in exactly the same way. But what was the need for this? It takes no account for the fact that different areas have different needs. The result was an inflexible store that sold more or less the same products regardless of what the local rivals were.

Moreover, many stores were not allowed to have top shelves. We were usually not allowed to have bulk stacks. And did you ever wonder where the dump bins of reduced CDs and DVDs went? I believe that they were not allowed either.

Presumably the idea was to make stores tidier. But in my view there was no need to make Woolworths look tidier. Most shops I go into look like a complete bomb site compared to our Woolworths store, and the likes of bulk stacks and dump bins are practically de rigueur in any store that likes to offer value for money, or simply make money from its stock rather than letting it gather dust in the stockroom. At a time when sales were falling, to actively be offering less stock for sale seemed suicidal. By the looks of it, it was.

The identity crisis on the shop floor was reflected in a more general marketing malaise. Historically, Frank W. Woolworth was not a big advertiser, normally restricting the company to advertising new store openings. But in the 1970s the UK arm threw its weight behind showy advertising campaigns brimful of familiar faces.

Woolies eventually became famous for its advertising campaigns and delightfully alliterative slogans like “The Wonder of Woolworth” or, my personal favourite from my childhood, “Woolies Winter Wonderland”. A more recent, delightfully punning slogan, said that Woolies was “Well Worth It”.

At its height, Woolworths was buying entire ad breaks. Check out this whopping two minute long advert from 1981.

The advert is wonderful. It is somehow cheap and cheerful at the same time as being ridiculously extravagant. It is also something undeniably of its time. You’d never see an advert like this today. But it fits Woolworths perfectly nonetheless.

Not quite in the same league is this more recent advert starring Jackie Chan in the fictitious sitcom “The Wooly & Worth Show”. It lasts one minute, but mostly focusies on Jackie Chan rather than Woolworths. It only tells you about a handful of products, and worst of all Wooly even decides not to buy the products that the advert is supposed to be about!! WTF?!

Wooly and Worth I was never the biggest fan of Wooly and Worth. No doubt an attempt to create a lovable comedy duo à la Wallace and Gromit, Wooly and Worth ended up just being faintly annoying. I was amazed, though, when a customer recently told me that she would miss Wooly and Worth on the television! Maybe most people found them lovable after all. My indifference towards the characters didn’t stop me buying Wooly and Worth keyrings as a memento in the final weeks of the store’s life.

Can you remember the company’s final slogan? I doubt somehow that “More great news from Woolworths” will be remembered as fondly as “The Wonder of Woolworth”. The recent slogan said absolutely nothing about the store and wasn’t an ounce of wit in it. Meanwhile, the classic taps right into people’s nostalgia for the store and its role as shop for special occasions. What about another recent slogan, “Let’s have some fun”? I’m still trying to decode the meaning of it.

One thing that was crystal clear in the media coverage of the collapse of Woolworths was that almost everyone had very fond memories of the store, even if they ceased to shop there in great numbers. Yet its heritage ended up overwhelming Woolworths. Creaking under the strain of almost 100 years of history, the company began to get a serious identity crisis. Straddling a line between changing with the times and continuing to give people what they remember from the past proved to be too difficult.

Meanwhile, the stores — which Woolworths once took great pride in — began to crumble. Recent re-fits misfired, leaving Woolworths with a reputation as a dingy shop.

Wooly and Worth in happier times
Wooly and Worth in happier times, posing for my discount card

By the time I started working for Woolworths, the company was pushing its in-store ordering system big time. In Summer 2006 The Big Red Book was launched to encourage customers to make use of the ordering facility. As sales assistants, we were always encouraged to offer to order any items that weren’t in stock.

Unfortunately, the ordering system was, in my view, a customer satisfaction minefield. The system was slow, clunky and difficult to use. Worse still, the majority of times I checked for an item, it wasn’t in stock and it wasn’t available to order (latterly, it was actually a surprise if an item was in stock). Customers would often raise an eyebrow and say, “I thought you were ordering it because it wasn’t in stock.” No such logic in the Woolworths system. And the flat £4.95 charge for home delivery simply wasn’t worth it for smaller items.

The catalogue also raised customers’ expectations about what they could find in store. A customer would browse the catalogue at home, and expect to be able to find every item they wanted in store. Not so, of course — that’s why they produced a catalogue in the first place. But there were a lot of disappointed customers.

During my stint at Cumbernauld there was a problem soon after the price of pic ‘n’ mix increased. It was still being advertised in the catalogue at the lower price, and the customer demanded to be charged the lower price. I know of at least one other similar incident with another product. The company seemed to forget that producing the catalogue meant they couldn’t really increase any prices.

The Big Red Book experiment was an inept attempt to beat Argos at its own game that was doomed to fail. I have heard that the experiment was ultimately an expensive disaster, and that the ordering system was one cause of the stock availability problems. The catalogue was scrapped in late 2008 (but not before the company had already produced not one but two Christmas 2008 catalogues), but the damage had already been done.

The whole adventure is ironic given that Woolworths was an early player in the catalogue store format with its Shoppers World chain. Woolies gave up on it in the 1980s. Maybe if they persevered they would never have had to worry about Argos.

Smarty-pants analysts like to point out that retailers need things like catalogues and high online sales to survive. But where is Poundland’s online ordering system? I notice also that I can’t buy my food shopping on the Aldi and Lidl websites. Yet these three stores are all in rude health, and are expanding as though the credit crunch never happened. That’s because they focus on providing goods that customers want at low prices — not producing costly catalogues.

It’s highly notable that those currently well-performing stores are all value retailers. Once upon a time, Woolworths would have been seen as a value retailer. Somehow it took its eye off the ball. Woolies was neither a place where you would be sure to find value-for-money bargains, nor a place to buy high-quality goods. Instead, it uncomfortably took a path in the middle — a retailing no man’s land.

In fairness, the launch of the WorthIt! brand was a good stab at offering value-for-money products, and the value was indeed often impressively good. Unfortunately, this sometimes seemed to be at the expense of the main range of products.

For instance, you could always find a better range of stationery in WH Smith (even if it was more expensive there). But alarmingly, the range at Woolworths seemed to get worse since I started working there. Of course, some products had to go to make shelf space for the WorthIt! range. This meant that I could buy sets of WorthIt! notepads that were undoubtedly excellent value for money, but they weren’t quite as good as my preferred kind of mini notepads that disappeared from existence.

Meanwhile, can you believe that latterly we did not sell such basic stationery equipment as a tape dispenser? I only realised this because a customer asked me if we stocked them. I instinctively said yes (of course we do!) only to lose the spring in my step once I had led my customer to the stationery area, realising that I had not seen one in yonks. Boy, did I feel like an idiot.

There were few signs that the product range was going to improve from 2009 onwards. Among the last new products that arrived was a dummy CCTV camera. This must have been designed to be put on sale after the Christmas period, the tell-tale sign being that they came in with half price stickers plastered all over them when they were not yet half price.

Unfortunately, at full price these plastic pieces of crap that literally did nothing (the only feature of this plastic, fake CCTV camera, was a blinking LED) sold for well north of £20. Customers did not touch them with a bargepole, even when the store-wide discount sat at 90% off on the final day.

Most of our remaining stock

There they are on the bottom-right of the above photograph along with a million and one WorthIt! laundry hooks. These were among our unsold products after the shutter went down for the final time on Tuesday. In fairness to the laundry hooks, they probably sold fairly well. The only reason we had loads left was because the distribution centre sent us way too many. By that time, crisis mode was well under way, and clearly the distribution centres’ only aim was to get rid of all the stock, just chucking stuff on cages and waving goodbye.

Another of the final new products to arrive was a set of four crocus vases with crocus bulbs. Not a bad product in and of itself. The problem was that the packaging was shockingly bad. There was next to no protection for the individual vases, meaning that they rattled around inside the box, clattering against each other. This sometimes damaged not only the vases but the bulbs as well (which just sat loose on the top of the vases). If a box was dropped, it was curtains.

Worse still, the boxes came with a huge display window. Not so unusual, except for the fact that it wasn’t so much a window as a massive hole in the box. Unprotected by any kind of cellophane covering, it didn’t take too much jiggling for a vase to “accidentally” fall out of the box. A shoplifter would have had a field day with these, simply being able to inconspicuously reach in, grab a vase and pocket it.

The packaging was so poor that the whole lot ended up being scanned off the books. We took the surviving vases out and sold them separately, sans crocus bulbs, for 30p each. But what a load of money that must have gone down the drain, and all for some thoughtlessly bad packaging!

One question that many of my friends have asked me over the past couple of months is, did I see it coming? For many, it was a shock that an institution like Woolworths could even be in mild difficulty, never mind on the brink of going out of business. But the honest answer to their question was: yes, I did see it coming. And I wasn’t the only one.

What was shocking was the speed with which it did happen. I thought everyone involved would at least give Woolworths a chance over Christmas. But the depth of the trouble to hit the High Street was even greater than I had imagined, and Woolworths was essentially given its last chance in mid-November.

I was first aware of the possibility of Woolworths getting into financial difficulty being raised in early 2007. Everyone was paid to come in for an hour to attend a meeting. If memory serves, we were basically told to ensure that standards were kept high and that displays were set up how they should be. During this talk the possibility that Woolworths might go out of business was brought up.

Back then, it seemed like a distant possibility. Nonetheless, it didn’t take me long after I started working for Woolworths in July 2006 to wonder if the company might be in a spot of bother. For the entire time I worked there, our shop never had working air conditioning — and I know that ours wasn’t the only one. Apparently they couldn’t afford to fix it. Temperatures were almost unbearably high during the summer, and I frequently overheard customers mentioning the terrible heat inside the shop. That seems to me at least one possible reason why footfall may have decreased.

Meanwhile, the fact that it took six weeks for my name badge to arrive, and the fact that I never received a uniform was a sign of, if not financial problems, at least incompetence somewhere or other in the chain. (I did have a uniform, but my Woolworths polo shirt was the one given to me on the first day which I believe was my manager’s old one. I didn’t kick up a fuss because it did the job just fine. I never got a fleece though!)

Meanwhile, we ran out of basic supplies, in my view, alarmingly often. It wouldn’t surprise me if other shops ran out of stuff from time to time. But we completely ran out of carrier bags at least once and had to resort to using bin liners (a scenario which was repeated when things unravelled in December 2008). Perennially we lacked tissue paper with which to wrap fragile goods. We also often ran out of the paper we needed to make temporary price labels.

When I started I am sure we had five (or maybe even six) Piccolink “guns” — the hand held stock management devices. These reduced in number over time until at the end we had just two — and they were both broken. These devices were almost essential to do our job, and the shortage was the source of much frustration.

For a couple of months after the Christmas 2006 period, supplies of stock seemed to completely dry up. The stockroom looked pretty empty and certainly in my department we started selling the dregs of the inventory in the stockroom. At first I thought maybe it was normal for just after Christmas. But when more experienced colleagues told me they had never seen the stockroom so empty, the signs pointed to the fact that the company was facing difficulties.

After a relatively benign 2007, sales fell off a cliff throughout 2008. My workload was noticeably lower in 2008 than it was in 2007. When the credit crunch worsened that summer, I began to think it was more likely than not that Woolworths would fall victim. Things were bad for the company anyway, but if things became bad for the economy as a whole as well it was difficult to see a way out.

Any notion that top management stuck its head in the sand should be dispelled. Even though on the surface Woolworths didn’t change much, there is no doubt that they were looking for a solution. Unfortunately, they came across the wrong solutions.

It is too easy to blame the demise of Woolworths on the credit crunch. Although High Street retailers are undoubtedly feeling the effects of the current economic situation, a good business can still survive with little problem. Sure, in a more benign time when credit was more available, Woolworths would have found it easier to borrow more money to survive another year.

But unmanageable debt — all £385 million of it in Woolworths’s case — will come back to bite when times are tough. In a way, Woolworths was lucky that the past decade or so was so benign. It was given the benefit of the doubt by the favourable economic environment.

Obviously things unravelled quickly in November. It became clear that Woolworths was in talks with Hilco, a company that specialises in turning around distressed retailers, to sell the retail arm of the business for £1 and offload a significant chunk of the debt. That was a sign of extreme desperation. Woolworths was looking to get rid of its core retail business by any means, in the hope of salvaging the more profitable businesses Entertainment UK and 2 entertain.

In the end, the banks refused to back such a deal, opting instead to recover their money. The retail arm and Entertainment UK both went into administration on 26 November 2008. From a business point of view, it was a shame that a profitable, successful business like EUK had to be brought down along with the shops. That had a more-or-less direct consequence on another major retailer, Zavvi, which relied on EUK for all of its supplies.

The disappearance of Woolworths also means the disappearance of other well-loved brands. Children’s clothing brand Ladybird has a history and involvement with Woolworths stretching back to 1934. It became exclusive to Woolworths in the 1980s and was bought outright by the company in 2001.

Meanwhile, the historic toy brand Chad Valley has also fallen victim. Like Ladybird, Chad Valley has a long history going back to 1860. Chad Valley withered on the vine in the 1980s, but Woolworths bought the name in 1991 and it became the store’s own brand toy make. Administrators are hoping to sell both brand names, and I would have thought the chances of these brands surviving in some form in the future are high.

Another Woolworths brand might not be so sorely missed. The WorthIt! value range was a recent addition, only launching properly in 2007 after a trial period. I think it made a good name for itself, particularly in affordable electronic goods. The likes of WorthIt! kettles and WorthIt! microwaves flew off the shelves.

A lot of WorthIt! products were cheap and nasty though. It was difficult to suppress the giggles when WorthIt! toilet seats were returned because they cracked under the weight of enormous bahookies. I would have thought a sale of the WorthIt! brand is less likely, given that it was pretty much intrinsically tied to Woolworths, right down to the punning name.