I have felt very sad about the demise of Woolworths ever since the business began to unravel in front of my eyes around two months ago. I was not sad so much because of my job — I was planning on leaving after the Christmas period anyway. I was just sad to see Woolies go because I was genuinely fond of it as a shop.
I always quite liked the idea that I worked for Woolworths, which had been one of my favourite shops as a child. Kids loved Woolies. I heard a story from another store about a child who enquired to his mother, “Is this Woolies branch closing as well?” When she said they were all closing, the child burst into tears. When I was on the tills during the closing down sale, I heard another child say, “Don’t give us any change!”
My personal affection for Woolies is more surprising because there wasn’t even a branch in Kirkcaldy when I was growing up. There had been a branch at the east end of the High Street, but it had gone by the time I could have any memories of it. It was one of the branches that were sold off in the 1980s.
Today the building houses the Kirkcaldy Indoor Market. But is still very recognisable as a Woolworths, with that classic design of the entranceway that was used for so many Woolworths branches up and down the land.
In the 1990s, there was a small Entertainment-only branch of Woolworths in Kirkcaldy that was more or less in the centre of the High Street. But it closed long before I was old enough to have an interest in buying music, and I have no memory of being in the store at all. That unit has since been an Our Price, a Ponden Mill and latterly a bicycle shop which I think has now closed down.
No, my memories of Woolies came from nearby Glenrothes. I have relatives in Glenrothes, and we would frequently visit, often popping into Woolworths on the way back. When I was a child there was something magical about Woolworths. Maybe it was all the pic ‘n’ mix sweets that I was seldom allowed to buy. I still remember the quaint stickers that used to adorn the pic ‘n’ mix stands — “Please buy before you try” and messages like that.
I always used to wonder why Kirkcaldy didn’t have a Woolies store. It made Glenrothes seem like such a superior town. When I had my job interview at Woolworths, I was asked what I liked most about Woolworths. My answer spoke about how I thought Glenrothes was a better town than Kirkcaldy because it had a Woolies. It must have sounded like I was taking the piss, but it was true.
Woolies finally arrived back in Kirkcaldy in 1998, and it was a large store at that. It filled part of a huge unit that Tesco had recently vacated, having just bought Wm Low whose Kirkcaldy store was judged to be in a better location. From then on, Woolies was always a trusty destination particularly when I had to buy gifts. It is no surprise that Woolworths made most of its profits at Christmas, because in Kirkcaldy at least it was more or less the only place you could find a decent selection of chocolates.
Woolies was also unquestionably useful for other odds and ends. The problem was, you couldn’t always quite tell what odds and ends you would find there. Quite soon after I started working there I clocked that customers were frequently unsure about what Woolies actually sold. I was as well. Even after working there for two and a half years, I would still sometimes be stumped by a question a customer asked about the products we sold, and I would have to go on a wild goose chase to find out if we stocked it.
The store’s role as an events retailer also meant that the range would radically change throughout the year as a matter of routine. Cleverly, shelf space was reserved for seasonal goods. The cycle went from home stuff in January, to gardening in the spring, to back to school in summer, to Hallowe’en stuff in September and October, onto Christmas stuff from then onwards. Tough luck if you wanted to buy a bird feeder during winter though.
Woolworths made a name for itself as a place where you could buy bits and bobs. If you wanted to buy something but weren’t sure where to get it, you could pop into Woolies. This meant that people had an affection for Woolworths — it was that useful shop where you could get your bits and pieces.
But it was also deeply dangerous territory for a store to occupy. Customers would sometimes pin all their hopes on being able to find an obscure household object in Woolies — and would become angry if we didn’t sell it. Then, as widespread access to the internet became a reality, you no longer had to search for your obscure items in Woolies. You could just search Google for them instead.
Meanwhile, all too often people wouldn’t know what Woolworths actually did sell. I primarily worked on the stationery department, but before I worked at Woolies I doubt I would have been able to tell you that it sold stationery. I certainly wouldn’t have bought my stationery from there before I started working there. I shopped at Stationery Box or WH Smith for my ringbingers and refill pads instead.
The sheer variety of goods sold by Woolworths also meant that it had multiple rivals on the High Street, each of whom focussed on a niche that they could specialise in. HMV sold a better range of entertainment products. You could go to Dunelm Mill for your household goods. Around half a dozen phone shops surrounded our back door. There were at least two greetings cards shops a stone’s throw away. The Works had some art and craft stuff. Even for toys you could go to Argos. Apparently Wilkinson destroyed Woolies down south. And of course, Woolworths competed with the major supermarkets on almost everything.
It seemed as though Woolworths needed to bring a better focus to its product range. But at the same time, it was difficult to see which departments could be safely ditched. DIY-type stuff could have been a prime candidate, but at the same time there was nowhere else on the high street (certainly on Kirkcaldy High Street) where you could buy that sort of thing. Entertainment could have gone due to poor sales, but it propped up an important arm of the Woolworths business, Entertainment UK.
I thought it would have been a good idea for Woolworths to position itself as a shop for kids and their parents. That would have brought most Woolworths departments — confectionery, kids clothing, toys, even home goods — under a clearer focus. In a way, I think Woolies had already become that store, but it didn’t have the bravery to properly market itself as such.
It is too easy, though, to blame Woolworths’s demise on the eclecticism of its range. Analysts may have bemoaned the way Woolies stocked Monopoly boards under the same roof as screwdrivers. But that doesn’t explain why one of the healthiest stores on the High Street just now is Poundland, which is like a jumble sale in comparison to Woolies. Plus, the thesis is fundamentally incompatible with the never-ending rise of the supermarket.
My next and final post in the series will look at some of the blunders of Woolworths and what life as a Woolies employee was like in the final few months.