(Almost) 100 years of Woolworths
A series of posts
- Woolworths: The curiously British US-based company
- Woolworths as it was known and loved, and neglected
- Woolworths: Childhood memories and adult gripes
- It wasn’t just the credit crunch
- The blunder of Woolworths
- Identity crisis
- The beginning of the end
- The nasty side of human nature
- Woolworths: Final thoughts and wrapping up
- Woolworths rises from the ashes
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:
- Stephen’s Linlithgow Journal: Goodbye Woolies
- Adelaide Green Porridge Cafe: The Demise of Woolworths
- A Son of the Rock: The Wonder That Was Woolworths
- The Ben Lomond Free Press: Woolworths R.I.P?
- A zippy adventure: Woolies
- Last Year’s Girl: “dig through the record bin and find a record for 59c that you’ve always wanted all your life”
- Indygal: I was a Saturday girl in Woolies
- Indygal: Woolworths in Greenock has gone – end of an era
- Jeff Zycinski: They’re Looting Woolies
- Ewan Aitken: Where will I get my pick and mix now!?
- Silversprite: People I hope will *NOT* have a happy Christmas
- James O’Malley: Woolworths 2009
- Craigblog: Woolworths R.I.P.
And some nice nostalgic offerings from more major news outlets:
- The Guardian: Woolworths: the rise and fall of the department store empire
- BBC News: What is the point of Woolworths?
- The Guardian: Woolworths: a store of memories
- BBC News: Audio slideshow: The Wonder of Woolies
- The Guardian: ‘It’s here for everybody’
- The Sun: Rack and ruin
- BBC News: Mournful mood in Woolies’ aisles
- BBC News: In pictures: The Woolworths story
- The Telegraph: The history of Woolworths
- The Sun: Oldest Woolies branch closes
- BBC News: My sadness at Woolworths’ demise — a journalist’s memories of his first job at Woolies
- BBC News: Woolworths staff feel pain of closure
Now, sadly, the shutter is down for good.