Archive: administration

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

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