On 5th November 1909, in Church StreetLiverpool, a certain Frank Winfield Woolworth opened the first British store to bear his name. There were fireworks, and an orchestra, and and circus acts, and even free cups of tea. The shop sold children's clothes and haberdashery and stationery and toys (just like its modern counterparts do today). Everything in the store cost only a few pence (so, erm, that's a bit like today too). And shoppers stripped the shelves bare, such was their desire to carry off a bargain (ditto).
Mr Woolworth's stores were based on three simple ideas: fixed prices of three and five pence, with everything clearly priced Well, that was a good idea. It still works today in cheaper shops around the country, although the fixed price is now ninety-nine or one hundred. But that means Woolworths is no longer cheap enough. If you can buy a plastic bucket down the road in the pound shop, why pay more? mass-produced, high quality items from the new factories And that was a good idea. Collectible glassware, fine-ish china, own brand clothing, its very own record label - all things that helped bring customers back time after time. But all the new factories are abroad now, where the workers are paid less and unit costs are lower. And nobody wants home-producedcrockery any more. buying direct from manufacturers to keep prices down And that was a good idea too, way back then. But now we're all increasingly likely to buy direct from the manufacturer ourselves through their website, or else via some intermediate online presence with no High Street rent to pay. Cost cutting today means cutting out the shop. Bad luck shops.
I went to pay a centenary visit to my local Woolworths yesterday. According to closure lists issued before Christmas, the store in Roman Road was due to be trading to the bitter end. But I arrived to find the doors closed, the metal shutters half lowered and a metal lattice across the windows. Clearance complete. Emptied, dead, gone. No posters announcing "90% off", just a single sheet of paper from the staff thanking the people of Bow for shopping here over the years. That and a message to the shoplifters of Bow reading "Up yours, you thieving c***ts" (except with two fewer asterisks). Inside the lights were still burning brightly above a stripped-out interior, with just the record counter left intact in the middle of the right wall. A handful of male staff remained, taking the opportunity for a boisterous kickabout (maybe a CD case, maybe a shelf bracket) inside what was now a makeshift indoor football pitch. At least they were getting a few minutes enjoyment out of the demise of Roman Road's largest retail outlet. How things can change in just six weeks flat. Soon the shutters will hit the floor, the lights will go out and the store will await a new owner. It could be a long wait. [Friday update: Bow and Poplar Woolies bought out by Iceland. Oh joy]
From 1909 to 2009, Woolworths has survived onehundredyears of glorious retail service. Until today. It's been a damned long run, far longer than most UK stores will ever manage. But, alas, not an anniversary to celebrate.