Identity crisis

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

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