Saturday, January 10, 2009

The blunder of Woolworth's

It’s very strange walking past the Woolworth’s in High Wycombe and seeing it bare and empty inside. It's like the store has been looted. On the final day of opening, I'm told that it actually felt like that too as people scrabbled and fought over the final bargains. It must have been like fighting over a corpse. Woolies has been a central feature of the town centre – and, indeed, many town centres – for as long as anyone can remember and the Wycombe store with its colonnaded frontage and roof mounted red lion statue was always a local landmark. But no more. And I find myself oddly nostalgic and upset by its demise. It’s like I’ve just heard that an old schoolfriend has died; not someone close enough to reduce me to tears, but an acquaintance of whom I have fond memories.

Where I grew up in Helston, the Woolworth store sat at the bottom of Coinagehall Street near the Grylls Monument and was managed by the father of a schoolfriend, Mr Davies. Being a hill, it was a good old walk down Coinagehall Street to get to the store and an even harder walk back so the only people who went there were those who really wanted to shop at Woolworth. From my memory that divided into two camps; young mums and pensioners. Woolies was where you went for Ladybird clothes, those slightly old-fashioned but cheap wooly jumpers, trousers, white vests and sensible shoes that we were all required to wear until some genius invented trainers. Even though they were unrelated, there was curious synergy between Ladybird clothes and the Ladybird books that also sold in the store. The books were constantly in print but the illustrations never got updated. Consequently, all of the children in them looked as if they were extras in a Famous Five movie. As indeed did we until we hit puberty and migrated to denim.

There always seemed to be predatory packs of pensioners in the store buying cooking utensils. I used to wonder what they did with them all. I don’t know about you, but I have used the same spatulas, ladles, nutcrackers and serving spoons for years. They need replacing as often as double-glazing but these little old ladies would be in there every week buying them. My theory was that they got home, put them 'somewhere safe' and then forgot where that was. I assume that during post-mortem house clearances, most pensioners’ houses in Cornwall served to fill several skips with slotted spoons and fish slices.

But, for me as a kid, Woolies was about two things: music and sweets. I can remember when the Helston store opened its music section and how it upset my good mate Dylan at the ETS Shop further up the street because they undercut his prices. However, I still shopped with Dylan because he kept back all of the best picture discs, coloured vinyls, posters, premiums and giveaways for me. Yes, I had the picture disc of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and the yellow vinyl edition of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and a host of other collectibles. I will always thank Dylan for that as I sold them all on e-bay a couple of years ago and used the money to buy my dream guitar. Cheers matey! Then there was the famous pick and mix or, as they liked to call it Pic’n’mix. I loved the pick and mix. Flying saucers, foam bananas, sherbet dips, lollipops, chewy prawns - who would think to fashion a sweet after a marine crustacean? Genius! - sweet cigarettes, Cornish clotted cream fudge, those weird white chocolate buttons covered with tiny coloured balls, liquorice bootlaces … it was an absolute joy to spend my hard-earned paper round money on these artery-encrusting treats. And you felt like you got your money’s worth too; a big bulging sack of sugary goodness for the same price as a piddling Mars Bar or Caramac.

I should also mention that the Helston Woolies was the scene of one of my many juvenile pranks as a teenager. Armed only with a microphone (the cable of which, if anyone had looked, went pointlessly into my trouser pocket), I wandered around the premises interviewing shoppers about what they thought of the store, telling them that they were being filmed by the in-store cameras and would feature on the evening news. The interview ended with me persuading them to do a little jig to camera in the centre of the shop. How my friends hooted with laughter.

And then there was Christmas. Woolies was always the first store in the street to put the decorations out and the TV adverts were always the most lavish and spectacular. They starred all kinds of B-list celebs from Rolf Harris (remember the song? ‘Christmas Caaaaaards, Christmas Caaaaaaards …’) to The Goodies (with a Steeleye Span/Abba-esque soundtrack), various BBC Radio 1 DJs, the casts of various sitcoms and game show hosts. And who could forget that shameful – but undoubtedly expensive - 1995 rip-off of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas? Christmas with Woolies was always a big event.

But now Woolworth has gone. Hanging in my study behind me is the last ever Woolies carrier bag I will ever own. And in a tragically ironic way, the slogan on it reads ‘More great news from Woolworths’. Not even Jackie Chan could save the ailing company (he featured in the most recent, and final, set of UK Woolies TV adverts) and the stores all closed earlier this week. So what went wrong? I’m no business analyst and I’m sure that much has been written on the subject by people who are. But I can’t help but feel that it was Woolies' lack of direction that did for the store. If I ask you what Waterstones sell, or Primark, or Greggs, you’ll know instantly that it’s books, clothes and sandwiches. But what about Woolies? Er … clothes, DVDs, garden equipment, kitchen utensils, CDs, anything made by Ronco, K-Tel or JML, computer games, cheap cassette tapes of 'not the original artists' variety, stationery, luggage, cuddly toys … Woolies was always a little schizophrenic; never quite sure what kind of a store it was. It just seemed to sell what it felt like. I’m told by an American chum that where he grew up, his local Woolies had a gun counter. This, I feel, is why it floundered. Most shops have a clear direction and concentrate on a particular segment of the market. Woolies took a scattergun approach to High Street shopping and was therefore, the ‘Jack of all trades’ rather than the expert. And if people are spending money, they like to go to the expert.

So it’s all very sad. Some people have even shed a tear or two. But it’s progress, I’m afraid and, like recent casualties MFI, Adams, Zaavi and Roseby’s, F W Woolworth couldn’t compete with the bigger, more financially-bolstered megacorporations. For me, the demise of Woolies feels like the last nail in the coffin of what we used to call ‘the local shops’. And guess what? Woolworth's probably would have sold the hammer and nails.


SweetPeaSurry said...

I remember going to Woolworth's in the small Nebraska town that my grandparents lived in. It was always an adventure, nearly like going to the amusement park because they DID have so much ... stuff!!!

When we were in our hometown though, it was always Walgreens.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Surry - I guess it's a global collapse if the whole company has been liquidated. I wonder if its loss is felt the same way around the world?

Planet Me said...

I remember that branch. One of teh most distinctive on any high street. A great piece of writing here, better than anything I could have done.

Winifred said...

It was fantastic for toys, much better than Argos and Toys 'R Us or whatever they're called. They'll clean up because there aren't many good toy shops around. They were also great for computer stuff. Don't know where I'll get my grandchildren's pressies next year.

I've just found their last Christmas catalogue in the boot of my car. Now with my catalogue and your plastic carrier we could clean up on the Antiques Roadshow in a few years!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Winifred - You're quite right. I'd forgotten all about the toys (because my kids have all grown up I suppose). Hang on to that catalogue! It'll be like the Dead Sea Scrolls one day.

Blog Princess G said...

I'm guessing Woolworths caused the demise of a lot of smaller shops, just like Walmart is now.


Good post - my god, those songs were awful! :)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Planet Me - Thanks! You are too kind. It's all very sad.

Princess G - You may be right there. The big fish eat the little fish but then a bigger fish comes along. It may not be progress but it is a kind of natural selection I guess. And those songs! Eek.

Stuart Peel said...

I'm sad about Woolies too, but the truth is they've been god awful for 20 years or more. I'm amazed they lasted this long. The one in Yarmouth also smelt of sewage, which didn't help greatly.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Stu - Woolies was always a bit rubbish and I guess that's why we found it so endearing. It embodied that bumbling confusion that we find so charming about Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and many other Brit 'celebrities'.