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.