Five years on from the demise of Woolworths how has the gap left behind by the much loved retailer on our high streets been filled? STUART ARNOLD reports.
WHILE store closures have become a common sight given the economic situation of recent years, it is perhaps Woolworths disappearance from the high street which resonated the most among shoppers and the wider public alike.
Better known as ‘Woolies’, the company was a British institution, a staple on the high street with more than 800 stores and 27,000 staff. But after becoming increasingly marginalised in an ever changing retail market, Woolworths with its well known pick ‘n’ mix sweets selection and Ladybird clothing range was forced into administration – the last of its stores closing in the winter months of 2009.
More than a few tears were shed by its staff as bargain hunters picked over the remains of the Woolworths empire in the huge closing down sales that took place before its doors finally closed.
So what happened next? While the Shop Direct Group purchased the Woolworths and Ladybird brands, ensuring they would survive online at least, 33 stores disappeared in the North-East alone which left yawning holes in many prime town centre locations. Surprisingly only two of those sites remain empty five years on, according to research carried out by Graham Soult, a retail consultant with CannyInsights.com
Meanwhile, in North Yorkshire all of the former Woolworths sites are now occupied by other retailers.
Mr Soult, who has visited and photographed a third of the former Woolworths estate and regularly blogs on the retail sector picture, says analysing the fate of these sites is a compelling way of looking at how town centres have evolved during the economic downturn. He also says the fact that so many are now occupied is a “cause for celebration”. Mr Soult discovered that value chain B&M and discount fashion retailer Store Twenty One – with four sites each – lead the way in occupying the North-East’s former Woolworth sites.
Four North-East towns – Billingham, Middlesbrough, North Shields and Wallsend – are already onto their second post-Woolies occupant following the collapse or closure of the businesses that originally took over those premises. Only Newton Aycliffe has the North-East’s only ex-Woolworths site to have remained empty since the chain went out of business, although it is currently under offer to a major and so-far unnamed retailer.
Peterlee’s former Woolworths site is also awaiting a new occupant after Poundland departed from there in 2012. Further south in North Yorkshire new occupiers include national chains Boots and WH Smith along with independent retailers such as the Yorkshire Trading Company.
“When the last Woolworths stores were shuttered, the chain’s closure left hundreds of towns across the UK without one of their most important and long-established retailers,” says Mr Soult. At the same time, however, it has provided a unique opportunity for successful and expanding variety chains like Poundland, B&M and Discount UK to ramp up their growth, snapping up what were in many cases great locations in busy high streets and shopping centres.
“Operators of small supermarkets and convenience stores like Iceland, Heron Foods and Tesco have also taken advantage of many of Woolworths’ best sites to grow their high street presence. Elsewhere Store Twenty One and M&Co have targeted smaller towns with their affordable fashion and homewares offerings.”
Poundland, which has thrived as shoppers have become ever more cash-conscious, is the biggest occupant of the 807 ex-Woolworths sites nationwide, followed by Iceland, 99p Stores and B&M, Mr Soult’s research shows.
“Less than one per cent of ex-Woolies sites nationally are yet to attract any new occupier,” he says. This brings into question the idea that the high street is dead or dying. Of course significant challenges remain for retailers in the current economic climate such as the levels of business rates or town centre parking charges that are still creating an uneven playing field between visible retail operations on the high street and online.
“However, the fact that so many ex-Woolworths sites, five years on, are back in active retail use is a cause for celebration – testament to the ability of Britain’s retailers to evolve and innovate amid the changing retail and economic landscape. It also demonstrates the continued role of our high streets in providing shoppers with convenience and value.”
WOOLWORTHS FORMER SITES IN THE REGION AND THEIR CURRENT OCCUPIERS
Barnard Castle – Heron Foods
Billingham – Fulton Foods (previously occupied by Ethel Austin)
Bishop Auckland – Boyes
Chester-le-Street – B&M Bargains
Consett – BrightHouse, Durham County Council
Darlington – Next
Durham – Tesco Metro
Hartlepool – BHS
Houghton-le-Spring – Store Twenty One
MetroCentre – Primark
Middlesbrough – Discount UK, Primark
Newcastle – Discount UK
Newton Aycliffe – empty, but under offer
Northallerton - Wilkinsons
Peterlee – empty (previously Poundland)
Redcar – Yorkshire Trading Company
Richmond - Heron Foods
Ripon - The Original Factory Shop
Scarborough - Poundland
South Shields – Poundland, Store Twenty One
Spennymoor – The Original Factory Shop
Stanley – Store Twenty One
Stockton – B&M Bargains
Stockton Portrack – The Range, Discount UK, Smyths Toys, B&M Home Store
Whitby - Mountain Warehouse