Woolworths as it was known and loved, and neglected

In 1982, the British arm of Woolworths was separated from the American parent when it was bought by retail consortium Paternoster, later to become Kingfisher. It changed the direction of the company forever. According to the Woolworths Virtual Museum, BBC News reported on Woolworths being under British ownership for the first time against a backdrop of the Oxford Street store. Mere weeks later, that very store was closed down.

The Oxford Street store had never been profitable and the new owners sold it to take advantage of the fact that it was a very valuable piece of real estate. This set the scene for a swathe of store closures throughout the decade as Kingfisher sought to capitalise on Woolworths’ portfolio of valuable freehold properties.

When Kingfisher bought Woolworths in 1982, there were 955 stores in the UK. By the end of 1985, there were just 745. Every Woolco out of town store was closed. All 45 Shoppers World (an Argos-style catalogue shop) stores were closed. All of the overseas stores (Woolworths also owned stores in the Republic of Ireland, the West Indies, Cyprus and Zimbabwe) were closed.

What remained of Woolworths was experimented upon. A variety of different shop formats were trialled. One was Kidstore, focusing on goods aimed at children. Another store was bizarrely named Woolworths Weekend (worst marketing ever — why shop there during the week?), while another was The Woolworth Mall.

However, the Kingfisher years undoubtedly shaped Woolies into what we knew it as today. The pic ‘n’ mix offering was turned up to 11. Meanwhile, as well as streamlining the number of shops, Kingfisher streamlined the range of products into more or less the sort of range Woolworths was stocking up to 2008. Believe it or not, the intention was to prevent Woolies from becoming a “jack of all trades” so that it could focus on products that it particularly specialised in.

Meanwhile, experimentation with store formats continued. In the 1990s, Woolworths sought to re-enter towns it had recently left. As a cheap way of doing so, it set up stores in small units that focussed on a particular range. There was a Kids-at-Woolworths which focussed on Ladybird goods, an Entertainment-only shop and a newsagent-style Gifts & Sweets shop.

Subsequently, Kingfisher again appeared to neglect Woolworths. The Woolworths Virtual Museum bitterly notes, “Poor old Woolies, the goose that laid the golden egg for Kingfisher, was left aging in the corner throughout the 1990s – literally an asset to the Group.” This period of neglect is perhaps the root of the problems that eventually spelled the end for Woolworths.

In its day, Woolworth was an innovative store. The “five and dime” concept is one that lives on today in the form of pound shops. Arguably, one of the nails was driven into the company’s coffin by a shop using the Woolworths-invented single-price concept — Poundland (one of the few shops on the High Street that is in good shape at the moment).

Frank W. Woolworth also benefited from his strategy of stocking mass-produced, imported goods which helped drive down prices. Woolworth was also one of the first shops where customers were able to handle and select their goods without having to ask a sales assistant. (The move to self-service, however, was painfully slow, and was not fully completed until decimalisation forced Woolworths to purchase new till equipment anyway. Perhaps that was an early sign that Woolworths had become complacent and set in its ways.)

Woolworths was also, believe it or not, among the first stores to move out of town. In the 1960s it set up the Woolco out of town stores, based on an idea that originated in the USA’s side of the company. However, sceptical local authorities often refused planning permission, fearing that the move to out of town would facilitate the death of the High Street. Woolworths didn’t press on, which is why you didn’t actually see many out of town Woolworths stores.

Having closed all of the branches of Woolco down when it bought Woolworths, Kingfisher set about creating a new out of town store. Seeking to unite all of its British brands — Woolworths, B&Q, Comet and Superdrug — under one umbrella, it created Big W. It didn’t last long. The Woolworths Virtual Museum stingingly blasted:

The Big W format was the most successful prototype store ever launched by Kingfisher. But that has to be taken against a backdrop that their most successful brands – Woolworths, Comet, Superdrug, B&Q, Castorama and Darty were all created by someone else before being absorbed into Kingfisher. Big W was a first – born out of a need to justify Kingfisher’s identity.

Having failed to justify its identity, in 1999 Kingfisher pinned its hopes on a merger with Asda. Everything looked promising until Wal*mart came in and spoiled the party. In 2000, it was decided that the “general merchandise” sector of Kingfisher (comprised of Woolworths, Superdrug and MVC) would be demerged. Today, Kingfisher specialises in DIY rather than being made up of the eclectic jumble of retailers it consisted of in the 1990s.

Woolworths Group plc was formed in September 2001 — but not before Kingfisher had sold all of the Woolworths buildings, meaning that the new business had to lease all of them back from the new landlords. The saddest thing of all is that Woolworths still had huge takings — but it had ginormous rent bills.

The final words on the Woolworths Virtual Museum are rather incongruous.

With a new team at the top, and big ideas for the future, the Group is embarking on the next stage of their history. We look forward to reporting their success here in the Virtual Museum.

The final Woolworths stores in America closed in 1997. Remnants of the company live on though. The UK arm’s joint venture with BBC Worldwide, the DVD publishing house 2 entertain, is still in operation. Meanwhile, the American company still exists as Foot Locker, having decided to focus solely on sportswear in the 1990s.

Believe it or not, the last place in the world you’ll be able to shop in a bona fide Woolworth store is Germany. The company only separated from its American parent in 1997 when it became Foot Locker. But German Woolies appears to still be going strong.


  1. An interesting history!

    I’d agree that Wollies ultimate undoing was their refusal (or inability) to properly innovate.

    One of the problems that Wollworth’s demise will cause is holes in high streets up and down the country. But that just proves that as public consumption has been shifting from the high street Woolies didn’t really innovate.

    The online aspect is probably the most obvious. The bulk of products that people bought in Wollies can either now be bought just as easily and cheaply in supermarkets or online. Just hoping people would stick with the company because it was almost 100 years old was never going to work.

    Another key problem (although perhaps also linked to falling sales) was the lack of investment in the stores themselves. I have a friend whose job involves him working on the renovations of large suppermarkets chains.

    He says that most big stores have a (roughly) five year lifespan after which they get a facelift to encourage people to keep coming. A quick trip to any Wollies would say it’s mostly been a long time since this happened.

    So it’s sad to see it go, especially as someone who still went in regulalry. But it’s hardly a shock.

  2. Woolworths is going strong in Australia and it’s general merchandise offshoot, Big W, equally so. I am surprised no mention of this in the peculiarly parochial article !!