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I know that hindsight is always perfect and it’s easy to sound knowledgeable after the event. But I genuinely am saddened by the fact the brutal Darwinian dynamism of the UK high street has claimed yet another victim with the demise of good old Woolies! Quite aside from the obvious worry that the people whose jobs are on the line will have, Woolies is where I got my sweeties, comics, ladybird clothes, school uniform and Airfix models kits (when they used to come in bags) every week when I was a lad. It’s not simply a store. It’s an institution and part of my childhood. In truth, Woolworth had been stalked by failure for several years. Much like lions in the Serengeti pick the obviously weak or sick antelope to attack and kill, this hasn’t just happened overnight!
Dead Man Walking
Woolworth had been one of the UK's weaker retailers for years. You couldn’t open the pages of any marketing magazine without seeing a discussion questioning exactly what the point of Woolworth was any more. Its confused identity, the need to rationalise product lines were all cited as evidence of terminal decline. If you want cheap clothes, go to Primark. Think expensive food and you think Waitrose. Nothing comes to mind when you think Woolworths. There’s a limit to how far you can go with a mix of light bulbs, pic’n’mix sweets and gadgets people never knew they wanted.
Didn't get Online Soon (or Well) Enough
Woolworth probably began to decline for two reasons: the large supermarkets started selling non-food items in their stores and progressively sold them online (think Argos and Tesco Direct for example) and then, like all music retailers, Woolies was also undermined by websites like Amazon. It tried to offer cheaper CDs and improve its own label range “Worth-It” (which did OK for things like school uniform) and offer very cheap toys. But it was now up against competitors who were increasingly going online and offering a huge range of products far cheaper than Woolies ever could. They avoided huge print runs and costs on catalogues and increasingly let their web presence do the talking and the conversion, although Argos and Tesco Direct also give the shopper the option of home delivery or collect in store for certain items, so that even the web site helps to drive traffic to and through the stores themselves.
No Clear Personality
No, Woolies was always going downhill fast really because it was unclear about its personality and purpose and didn’t embrace the Internet in a fully effective way early enough. For a long time it was a dead man walking thanks to relatively benign, debt-fuelled, trading conditions that everyone now claims to have known just couldn’t last. Ultimately, what did for it was a combination of bad decision calls many years ago (i.e. not getting online in big way much earlier) and the sudden deterioration in the real world economy and the financial markets. Woolies' collapse will probably spark a price war because the administrators will try to shift all the stock in stores over the next few weeks, and while that might be good news for us punters it’s probably another nail in the coffin for Woolies’ weak competitors who are also not trading heavily online.