The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #24: Woolworths

A Cracking Christmas, 1981 style

We have come to the end of our Lost Precinct Advent Calendar and, as you would expect, we have saved the best clip to the last. This time, from the variety store of all variety stores, with a bit of inspiration from ABBA and a star studded line up.

The Ad of Christmas Past

Long before Sainsburys and John Lewis captivated audiences with their big budget adverts (with vaguely moralistic leanings), you could tell Christmas had begun as soon as you saw the Woolworths advert. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, they went to town before Christmas, creating star-studded spectaculars. At two minutes long, they took up an entire (as per IBA regulations at the time) commercial break.

For 1981, they repeated the Super Trouper style tune but tweaked it a little to mention “Crack Down Prices” (their 1981 campaign of price cuts). The advertisement is more revue than review of the latest offerings. We see Bill Oddie, Anita Harris and a cast of other showcasing Fisher Price toys, the Chevron cassettes back catalogue, and super sized Quality Street.

How could one not resist the York Music Centre with twin tape decks at £139.95, or the Bontempi B226 Electronic Organ for £199.95? At today’s prices, £536.98 and £767.19 (you can get some serious kit for that amount in 2015). The Noel Pine Christmas tree at £25.99 is equivalent to £99.72 these days. Ouch, ouch and ouch some more! White Stores offers a 7′ tree for £99.99. The Yamaha Moxf6 synthesizer is £721.68 from Woodbrass.com – the remainder of the Bomtempi’s 2015 equivalent price could go on sheet music.

The Shop of Christmas Past

Owing to the amount of affection that F.W. Woolworth’s stores had with British shoppers, we are happy to find how well documented its history is, via the excellent Woolworths Museum website. The Woolworth Corporation was an American chain founded by Frank Winfield Woolworth as a split price retailer. Their first UK store opened in Liverpool with its fourth branch being Manchester’s, facing Piccadilly Gardens. With their successful formula working on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean came a successful Australian arm.

Throughout the 1930s, they were known for their palatial stores as well as the smaller local branches. One notable example is the former Blackpool store next to The Tower Ballroom. Before the 1960s, there was only two prices: threepence or sixpence. Come the 1950s, Woolworth’s transition to self-service ushered a new age of bigger stores in major towns and cities. A decade later came their first foray into out-of-town shopping, by means of the Woolco department stores.

In 1982, following a turbulent period in the late 1970s (which included the 1979 fire of the Piccadilly branch), The Woolworth Corporation’s UK stores were sold to their management. Headed by Geoffrey Mulcahy, there was a change of fortunes for the chain. As Paternoster Investments – later Kingfisher plc – their estate included the popular B&Q supercentres. Comet and Superdrug would form part of their formidable force in British retailing.

Whereas the late 1980s ended on a high, their good fortune continued till the new millennium. After failing to buy ASDA in 1999 (Walmart made a bid later in the same year), more restructuring took place with the Woolworths stores under their own steam. Comet was sold to Kesa; Superdrug was sold to Hutchinson Whampoa, owners of the Three mobile phone network.

On the 04 January 2009, Woolworths was no more. Issues with finance dominated the chains woes the previous year, with some of its other components being sold off. The Chad Valley toy brand, reintroduced in 1986, was sold to Home Retail Group, Argos’ owners. Even the legendary pick and mix was outsourced to Candy King in the company’s twilight years as a bricks and mortar retailer.

For many people, Woolworth’s stores were associated with pick and mix confectionery. By the 1980s, cut price audio and video cassettes, the Ladybird clothing range and its Scandecor poster stand next to the record bar. Before Google, it solved many a Christmas present issue. It was classless. For many small towns, the biggest store other than a Co-op department store.

Today, even the online version of Woolworths (resurrected a year after the stores closed) has left cyberspace. The page now redirects to Very.co.uk. The British High Street is all the poorer without their stores, though Wilko’s recent expansion has seen the Worksop based retailer assume Woolies’ role. The single price tradition is pretty much alive and well in the Pound Shops.

A Merry Christmas to you all!

We hope you have enjoyed this year’s Advent Calendar, and tour ’round the lost shops of our youth. East of the M60 wishes you all a Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year. We hope you get what you want for Christmas Day.

S.V., 24 December 2015.

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