Wednesday, November 26, 2008

End of an era for the UK High Street

It's been a long time since I actually bought anything from Woolworths but I was sad to read of its demise today. Back in the 80s I worked in my local Woolworths, sweeping up after school, and later as a supervisor of Saturday till staff. The store had a family atmosphere (complete with elderly matriarchs in the cash office and an avuncular manager). A full time job there was seen as a career by many of their staff.

Woolworths has been an icon of the High Street since 1909 (when the US-owned F W Woolworth & Co Ltd opened their first stores), and a fixture of the FT30 index of leading UK companies (a precursor of the FTSE100) since its inception in 1935. A year from their centenary, Woolworths has a nationwide network of over 800 stores, and 30,000 employees who now face almost certain redundancy. Having rejected a bid from frozen food chain Iceland only 3 months ago, today Woolworths failed to find a buyer to save them, and they appear to have collapsed under the weight of spiralling debt.

"Woolies" has (or had) a special place in the UK's national psyche. A Woolworths store was once a treasure trove of useful household items, quality toys and games, pop music (particularly back in the 7-inch era), "pick 'n' mix" confectionery, and the only photo machine in town. Their brand was a byword for economy and variety.

Perhaps inevitably, as UK society and consumer behaviours have evolved over the last two decades, Woolworths lost focus on (or could not maintain) their core competencies and - aggressive business policies aside - its survival this far has largely relied on increasingly low quality goods. As a result, although a certain nostalgia remained, their brand lost its lustre and its meaning. As a recent article in The Guardian's online edition stated, "it is no longer clear what the store is for... Woolies has outlived its usefulness and many of its products can be bought more cheaply elsewhere."

A brand can outlive you, but it cannot save you.

Now, anyone know where I can get some passport photos done?