Brits bid ‘Woolies’ a sad goodbye

Stephen Beard Jan 5, 2009

Brits bid ‘Woolies’ a sad goodbye

Stephen Beard Jan 5, 2009


Renita Jablonski: This fallout from the financial crisis is claiming another corporate casualty this week. The last of the Woolworth’s stores in Britain will close down. American entrepreneur Frank Woolworth opened his first shop in the U.K. a hundred years ago. As Stephen Beard reports from London, few American imports have been held in such affection.

Stephen Beard: You can tell how the Brits feel about Woolworth’s from the nickname. They call it “Woolies.” At this store in London, customers felt sad — even guilty — about turning up for the closing down sale:

Nostalgic Man: Feel a bit of a vulture at the end of the pickings. Grown up with Woolies. Remember it as a child.

Nostalgic Man 2: It’s just been there ever since I was a kid. It’s a bit sad isn’t it? It’s like the end of an era.

Nostalgic Woman: Woolworth’s was always the shop I used to shop at as a child.

Beard: What did you buy here as a child?

Nostalgic Woman: I used to buy a bag of broken biscuits for six pence. We used to go home, my brother and I, and we used to make a tent out of a sheet. And we used think it was wonderful with our broken biscuits for six pence. And that’s my memory of Woolworth’s, and I’m very sad to see it go.

But nostalgia wasn’t enough to save Woolies from a competitive onslaught. Supermarkets undercut the chain in household goods, toys and clothing. And the Internet finally killed off Woolies’ music sales. All that was really left was confectionery, says analyst Robert Clarke:

Robert Clarke: It just didn’t really work anymore. It didn’t stand for much. And really it became reduced to sort of the biggest sweet shop in the world. And that’s just not good enough. You can’t make enough profit doing just that.

Woolies might have staggered on but for the credit crunch. Just before Christmas, banks called in their loans. Woolies couldn’t pay up, and declared bankruptcy.

Many more British stores are going the same way, says analyst Johnathon de Mello:

Johnathon de Mello: Going forward, there’s a number of other potential retailers that are going to fall by the wayside. And at the moment we’re forecasting that maybe 1 in 10 retail sites may become vacant in January. So it’s a pretty dire time really for retailers.

Hopes of a last-minute reprieve for Woolies are waning fast. There has been a flurry of bidding, but only on eBay, for souvenirs — like staff uniforms, closing down posters and other bits of Woolies memorabilia.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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