Is Woolies past its sell–by–date?

28 November 2008

High street favourite Woolworths has gone into administration, unable to cope with it’s £385 million debt and putting 30,000 jobs at risk.

This news has saddened me more than the current twoapenny retailers’ reports of sales slumps and paltry profits or even the increasingly regular news of job losses, with companies either making cutbacks or going bust.

Of course the growing unemployment levels don’t make for cheerful reading and if Woolworths were to permanently cease trading it would have a knock–on effect on the companies who supply their goods to the high street chain, losing out collectively on £1.5 billion every year.

But somehow the news of Woolies’ demise feels more like hearing that a long–loved local business has just announced it is closing down, rather than an American import with 815 stores in the UK. Perhaps this is because the store was part of my childhood in a way that Marks & Spencers or Debenhams, for example, never could be.

First off were the post–school visits where my sister and I carefully deliberated over whether to opt for a jelly–based pick and mix (lighter sweets allow you to get more for your money’s worth) or a fudge and chocolate combo (bigger sweets mean you get less variety).

I was still a loyal customer in my early teens where shopping trips equated to buying a lip balm from Boots and slowly walking up and down the aisles of Woolworths the rest of the afternoon. We may not have contributed on a huge scale to Woolies’ cash flow but we did our bit. Reading magazines cover–to– over, flicking through all the CDs and deciding which pop star we fancied the most, admiring the stationary and then finally leaving with … pick and mix.

OK I may have a sweet tooth but not everyone loves Woolies purely for its treasure trove of e–numbered goodies. Where else can you buy a novelty mug, photo frames and cushions for your living room? Erm Ikea.

What about socks and tights, children’s clothes, and a water gun? Try H&M for the former and your local supermarket or Argos for the latter.

Saucepans and a garden shovel? Debenhams, John Lewis and so on –you should be getting the point by now. If variety is the spice of life then Woolworths is like a jar of Schwartz Mixed Spice: everything is there but it doesn’t taste quite right.

It’s always been hard to pinpoint what Woolworths mainly sells and while the high street trader’s eclectic mix of goods means many of us look on Woolworths fondly, we don’t necessarily follow up that fuzzy nostalgia with some cold cash, which is after all what the retailer could do with.

Equally though there’s no doubt that Woolworths’ prices are aimed at the budget conscious, new stores such as Primark and Ikea have swooped in to take the cheap–as–chips crown. They have clearer branding identities and product–wise customers know what to expect. And if consumers are still after a more authentic pot–luck shopping experience, they have a plethora of pound shops to turn to.

It looks like even a nationwide pick and mix binge of epic proportions can’t save Woolies now but maybe for old times we should pay it one last visit. Jelly babies or toffee?

Nathalie is Editorial Assistant at Moneywise