The Wonder of Warrington Street: Looking Back at Woolworths

Our much missed variety store and, for many, the last word in pick and mix, children’s clothing and cheap video tapes.

The 02 January 2009 marked the end of an era in UK’s retail history, with the closure of Britain’s last Woolworths stores. In Tameside, its remaining branches in Ashton-under-Lyne and Hyde closed their doors for good. By the end of 2009, they became Poundland and Poundstretcher Extra discount stores respectively. The former retailer is famed for its single price strategy as its name suggests. Both have a variety of items within their stores which wouldn’t have been out of place in a typical UK Woolworths store. Likewise with Wilkinson’s Ashton, Droylsden and Hyde stores, and the Bargain Buys store in Ashton, set to open this Friday [06 December].

The successful format pioneered by Frank Winfield Woolworth proved to be Woolworths’ undoing as its rivals out-Woolworth-ed them. And they were sometimes cheaper. Plus they made a success of out-of-town retailing under one roof, in the same way Woolco did from the late 1960s till 1986. Besides Wilkinson, Poundland and Home Bargains, competition would include the likes of TESCO, ASDA (who both had non-food sections since the 1960s), Morrisons and Sainsburys.

For some, Woolworths meant a love-hate relationship for some people (probably the sort whom before seeing ex-Woolworths employee Malcolm Walker, were averse to calling into one of his Iceland stores). Some may have thought a Woolworths store was common, compared with Marks and Spencer, British Home Stores or House of Fraser. It was also in good company with The Beatles and Coronation Street, by being loathed by the Daily Mail in its formative years. Even so, there was still a Woolworths in posh parts of Britain as well as in its less salubrious areas.

For a great many, Woolworths was held in great affection. Particularly so as each store catered for anyone from cradle to grave. Notwithstanding the classless appeal of Pick and Mix, cheap video tapes and its Ladybird clothing range. For many people, their first Saturday job may have been beside the record counter. Before going on to enjoying bigger and better or more grown-up musical acts, a fertile source for fans of the Bay City Rollers, Donny Osmond, Bros, Take That or Westlife. In seaside resorts, a good place for beachwear or a shelter from the rain. It meant birthdays, Christmases, Bar Mitzvahs, confirmation days or Valentine’s Day. All rites of passage and age ranges catered for.

Whether you loved or loathed F.W. Woolworth’s creation, they were very much part of any self-respecting small to medium size UK town or city centre. Today, our streets seem poorer without them. I can testify that firsthand with Ashton-under-Lyne, which seems to have suffered since Woolies’ departure.

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A Fairly Brief History

In 1910, Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first UK store in Liverpool with Fred Moore Woolworth overseeing Britain’s stores. On our shores, the formula was ‘nothing over sixpence’ with items at 3d and 6d. Their American style of retailing began in Northern England and caught on in a big way. Soon, small towns would be seen with Woolworth stores as well as in the major centres.

By the 1920s, a standard Woolworth style was adapted through its property portfolio, with the smallest and largest of stores inspired by Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements. Company architect William Priddle was responsible for a set of standard designs for smaller stores, with some assistance for more ostentatious designs. In the 1930s, they introduced canned food, stocked Penguin’s paperback books at the end of the that decade, and started selling licensed merchandise. Popular recorded music appeared in its stores and gained popularity. The Ladybird range of clothing hit Woolworth’s shelves in 1932. The variety store as we know today came of age and there was no stopping Woolworth’s popularity.

In the Second World War, F.W. Woolworth’s stores carried on trading, even if it meant temporary buildings inside the ruins of bombed out stores. The end of the 1940s would see blitzed stores replaced by a more accessible design with wider doors and clearer aisles. This move by F.W. Woolworth’s chief architect, Harold Winbourne, made for a more airy layout and increased profits with customers queuing around the block.

From the late 1950s, F.W. Woolworth’s UK stores moved with the times, having introduced self-service in the mid-1950s. The spring of 1959 saw its first advertisement on I.T.A. The rise in popular music saw the launch of F.W. Woolworth’s Embassy record label. For half the price of Elvis Presley singing Jailhouse Rock, you could purchase another version sung by an Embassy artiste. Computerisation arrived with its stores linked to a computer in Castleton, Lancashire. Larger out-of-town Woolco stores and bigger central department stores arrived, with a number of smaller stores closing.

By the 1980s, it acquired Block and Quayle’s DIY chain B&Q, then said goodbye to its American parent in 1982. A Management Buy-In led by Geoffrey Mulcahy that year saw Woolworth’s UK stores in British hands, under the aegis of holding company Kingfisher. They would expand the B&Q Supercentres, purchase Comet and Superdrug. To keep Woolworths going towards the 1990s, some stores were sold off. Food sales were discontinued. On the debit side, its audio and video sections were transformed with the arrival of cheap and cheerful VHS video titles alongside chart singles and albums. Its toy section would also be boosted.

It was a strategy which saw Woolies into the 1990s and the 21st century. Then the superstores and rival variety store chains started to ape Woolworths. Even their piece de resistance, the Pick and Mix counter would be copied. By 2001, a change of management saw the de-merger of Kingfisher, which led to the sale of Comet to the German Kesa Group. Woolworths would go it alone, and had another stab of out-of-town retailing with the Big W brand. Besides the competition from other retailers, and the rise of internet shopping, a balance of payments issue from some suppliers led to the disappearance of Woolworths from our shopping centre. It was a similar balance of payments issue which also affected one-time Kingfisher subsidiary Music and Video Club.

By the 03 January 2009, Woolworths was no more. Or so we thought. Firstly, Shop Direct (spun off from Littlewoods) bought the UK rights to the Woolworths name. Chad Valley Toys, a Woolworths brand became part of Home Retail Group, owners of Argos and Homebase.

However, if you dig a little deeper, you may well find some traces of the US parent of Woolworths in a bricks and mortar sense. They no longer do pick and mix nor sell anything on Embassy or Chevron records. Instead they sell sports shoes, and one is right next to an empty HMV in the Arcades Shopping Centre. You’ll be surprised to hear that Frank Winfield Woolworth’s direct successor is now Footlocker.

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A Gazetter of Woolworths Stores in Oldham, Rochdale and Tameside

With Northern England being at the forefront at Frank Winfield Woolworth’s retail revolution, our area east of the M60 motorway was well served. By the late 1960s, they were within a 15 mile radius of the mammoth Castleton warehouse and computer centre. In the early 1970s, Woolworths had a number of regional offices. Most of our area’s stores were answerable to Liverpool whereas Glossop’s store was answerable to the Birmingham regional office.

Please note that the Store Number suffix was Woolworth’s computer check digit for the Castleton computer centre.

Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council:

Heywood: 10 – 12 Market Street. F.W. Woolworth’s 704th store (704/8), adopted Woolworths Local format used on smaller stores in late-1990s. Now The Edwin Waugh, a J.D. Wetherspoon public house.

Middleton: 17-19 Long Street. F.W. Woolworth’s 965th store (965/8). Closed in 1971 after replacement by Woolco Superstore on second floor of nearby Arndale Centre. Also a J.D. Wetherspoon known as the Harbord Harbord, like its Heywood counterpart a 163 bus ride away.

Middleton (2): Arndale Centre Woolco Superstore (2005/3). Opened as one of two anchor stores for the Middleton Arndale Centre and allocated the second floor level with car park. It was sold to Carrefour in 1986, though shortly subdivided into six units including indoor market (the InShops development, now Bazaar). In multiple occupation with Bazaar and other five units comprising of Pound Empire, Iceland, Quality Save, Poundstretcher and Argos.

Rochdale: 41 – 43 Yorkshire Street. F.W. Woolworth’s 274th store (274/1), later part of the Rochdale Shopping Centre development from the 15 September 1978. Now occupied by B&M Bargains.

Oldham Council:

Oldham: 12 – 20 High Street. F.W. Woolworth’s 181st store (181/6). Closed on the 28 January 1984. Demolished and replaced by four modern units, housing at this time of writing a William Hill betting shop, a Lloyds Chemist, an empty unit and a Payday Loan shop.

Oldham (2): 7 – 15 High Street. Almost opposite the 181st branch which closed in early 1984, it also absorbed the Market Gallery walkway. Opening in August 2000 (branch no. 1207), it attracted controversy in The Sun owing to an ex-Spice Girl signing copies of her new single. The front page headline entitled ‘DESPERATE’ included pictures of Victoria Beckham  signing copies of Out Of Your Mind (her Number Two chart single featuring Dane Bowers). This branch stayed open till Woolworths’ final day of trading and has been subdivided into three shops. The first floor which had an entrance facing Tommyfield Market belongs to Iceland, whereas the ground floor is let to Poundland and Sports Direct.

Shaw: 56 Market Street. F.W. Woolworth’s 1,025th branch (1025/T). Like Heywood, this too was converted into the short lived Woolworths Local format in the late 1990s. It is now Family Dental Care’s dental practice (oh, the irony after consuming too much pick and mix).

Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council:

Ashton-under-Lyne: 173 Stamford Street. F.W. Woolworth’s 264th branch (264/7) flanked the once fashionable shopping street of Stamford Street, before moving to a purpose built unit right of Marks and Spencer. After vacation, it has been occupied by PI DIY and Ashton’s first branch of Cash Converters (in 1993). The first floor was damaged by fire, but the ground floor remains in use today as a charity shop for the Wooden Canal Boat Society. The ‘W’ and diamond mosaic tiled floor at the entrance remains in full view today.

Ashton-under-Lyne (2): 55 Warrington Street. Replacing the previous store, it was a convenient spot for grabbing pick and mix (thus avoiding Ringway prices), prior to boarding the Trans-Lancs Express. The recorded music section was nearest to Marks and Spencer with clothing and garden tools nearest to Ashton bus station. There was four separate entrances (two opposite M&S, one opposite bus station, and a rear nearest The Ashton public house) and a fire exit facing the open market. It was demolished in 1993 when replaced by four units of the Arcades Shopping Centre. Which leads us to Ashton’s third branch.

Ashton-under-Lyne (3): Unit 16, The Arcades. The second store’s replacement opened in late October of 1994 with the rest of the Arcades Shopping Centre completed a year after. Compared with its predecessor, it was a split level store with pick and mix, audio visual entertainment and clothes on the ground floor. On the first floor was the toy section, gardening tools and an instore café. Ashton’s last branch closed on the 02 January 2009, with the ground floor let to three tenants. The former music and video section is now a branch of Betfred, whereas NS News is where the pick and mix section used to be. Most of the ground floor is let to Poundland which was opened by I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here winner Joe Swash. The first floor remains vacant at present.

Hyde: 13 – 15 Market Place: Formerly Brownsons’ store prior to becoming F.W. Woolworth’s 528th store (528/1). Shortly after closure it became a Poundstretcher discount store.

Stalybridge: 55 Grosvenor Street: F.W. Woolworth’s 578th store (578/4). After a reprieve in 1972, it closed the following year. Shortly after, it became a Kwik Save discount store prior to moving to an ‘out of town’ site in 1994, on Leech Street (now today’s ALDI). In 1996, it became a branch of Ethel Austin before the chain’s liquidation led to the loss of Stalybridge’s branch. Shortly occupied by Craft Shop UK which in the last year along with its Ashton branch has closed. Unit now vacant.

High Peak District Council:

Glossop: 9 – 11 High Street West: F.W. Woolworth’s 485th store (485/9). Unlike Heywood and Shaw, though of similar size to the two stores, it never acquired ‘Woolworths Local’ branding. After closure, it became a Cooltrader frozen food shop on the 18th June 2009. It is now a Heron Foods frozen food shop after Malcolm Walker sold the Cooltrader brand to its Hull rivals, so as to concentrate more on Iceland.

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A trip to a 1980s Woolworths store: Ashton-under-Lyne, 1986

1986 for Woolworths was a transitional year. Its parent company Kingfisher had fought off a hostile bid from Dixons’ Sir Stanley Kalms. Therefore the triumvirate of B&Q, Comet and Woolworths would reap benefits for the historical variety store chain. ‘Operation Focus’ would see increased sales in the items which Woolworths was good at selling – namely toys, audio and video products, plus the famed pick and mix.

On leaving your trusty 346 from K stand, you would try to avoid being run over by passing 409s or 219s. On the left is Presto, the Metro Kiosk to your right. Straight ahead is the entrance to Woolworths. You enter, and the first thing which greets you is the Blood Pressure coin-slot machine and two steps leading to the toy section on the right hand side. Directly in front of you is a till and the Ladybird clothing racks. Board games would flank the walls.

Right at the back of the store is the gardening and housewares section. The bigger products are at the very back, near a coin-operated passport photo booth and a back door leading to The Ashton and Beau Geste public houses. Directly left of the back entrance, you see the home entertainment section. You see assorted portable radios, tape recorders and computer games. The Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum games are close to the audio visual counter. A domain which nobody should miss if they want to avoid returning home with an empty CD box and the inlay notes for Paul Simon’s Graceland album (as all the CDs and tapes are locked in a cabinet).

On the right of the audio visual counter and an adjacent shelf, you see the Scandecor poster racks. You flick through the posters hoping to find anything other than George Michael, and hope to bring home a slightly smutty or humorous poster for your bedroom door. Then again, in a moment of clarity, you decide to buy Jaki Graham’s Set Me Free instead of a Transformers poster. You go to the record racks directly left of the audio visual till, near the set of doors opposite Marks and Spencer. Then you find (popular in the village of Sorry Not In Service) that evergreen seller, ‘Temporarily Out Of Stock’. Bummer! So you check the bargain bin: Princess’ Say I’m Your Number One’s 20p. Bargain! You go to the till, no problem, cue 7″ single in small carrier bag with repeated red ‘WOOLWORTHS’ text emblazoned in diagonal form.

Then you feel peckish. It is too cold for an ice cream at the stall opposite by the roundabouts. Whereas half of Ashton seemed to have been queuing for Westlers’ hot dogs or a 99, you find the ultimate deal breaker. Blackcurrant and liquorice, peppermint creams, miniature Dairy Milks, and pear drops – Pick and Mix – get in!!!! As you pass the chocolate bars and chewing gum, you dive in. To hell with the cost or weight! Then you go to another till to get your booty weighed. It is the one beside the fire doors. Then you leave, content, through the corner door towards the little brew hut near the Cavern and fairly new McDonalds. Edinburgh Rock Me Amadeus!

You check your change. Not enough for a taxi from Iceland, but 12p and an Under-16 card on the 339, 340 or 346 would suffice. Still not enough left to scoff your toffees in front of Teenwolf in the Metro. Then you realised your mother wanted some milk from the new fangled Morrisons supermarket. Holy cack! You’ve just spent part of your mother’s money on Pick and Mix. Grounded! One’s walking home, but at least she’s got Daisy Dairy to help her out.

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Christmas at Woolworths

With Christmas around the corner at this time of writing, no reminiscence of Woolworths is complete without ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. For many households, it was a veritable source for Christmas decorations as well as presents. Their Winfield satin baubles remained at Chez Vall till the noughties for a start.

Some people of a certain age might remember Woolies’ TV adverts in the run-up to Christmas. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, they literally pulled out the stops with popular celebrities from TV and radio making appearances. 1978 would see most of BBC Radio One’s DJs featuring along with Leslie Crowther and Derek Nimmo. Each year’s advertisements would be two minute extravaganzas, spanning an entire ad-break. 1980 saw Roy and Fiona Castle, whereas the following year – set to an ABBA style tune – featured Anita Harris.

As Woolworths left its American parent, their Christmas adverts became less ambitious in scale. 1983’s campaign saw Joe Brown and Geoff Capes whereas celebrities making cameo appearances were ditched the following. This also coincided with a change in advertising agency from Allen Brady and Marsh (whose other accounts included British Rail) to McCann Erickson.

Today, the Wonder of Woolies is a mere neutron star compared with the red giant it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Its presence is only online. Whether its competitors and bastard offspring which followed in its would yield the same power remains to be seen.

Sadly, the retail environment of today favours the online shopping experience. Even so, we still need to get out of the house for items which your favourite tax-dodging online retailer cannot provide in a jiffy. Sometimes we need to go to a store like Woolworths for the odd toiletry, last minute gift, pint of milk or kitchen product. The problem is, the Wonder of Woolworths has moved to its rivals: ergo the superstore giants, the online shop, the local discount store or stores, and single price retailers. The choice we have today is amazing, and we no longer need to leave the house.

Yet I cannot find a decent George Michael poster in TESCO these days (not I would want to personally, just for arguments sake), nor a 7″ single in an ASDA bargain bin.

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And Finally…

If you have any memories of shopping, or working for Woolworths, feel free to comment. Did you pore over the poster racks? Was your first job there?

Before I go, I shall leave you with this clip from 1981:

S.V., 03 December 2013.

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