The Wonder of… B&M? Which Store Chains Have The Old Woolies Magic?

An Ashton Review of Shops Extra report

In what has been yet another cheerless week thanks to That Pandemic, there was a rumour on Twitter that 2020 would have been saved by the return of an iconic store chain. Local and national newspapers picked up on it, in the vain hope its return would reenergise the High Street. The return of Woolworth to our High Street would have been a neat Christmas present.

Since the chain’s departure in 2009, Woolworths’ absence has been sorely missed by shoppers aged 20 to 90. To this day, the loss of Woolies is attributed to the decline of many small towns. It was classless, a variety store chain in the truest sense – whether in the poorest or richest parts of the United Kingdom. Like the Cooperative Movement’s buildings, Woolworths have left an architectural mark in our town centres.

By Wednesday, Home Retail Group dismissed these rumours. Therefore, the return of Woolworths to our High Streets remain a pipe dream.

Successors or pretenders to the throne?

Since January 2009, there has been many potential successors to Woolworths. Many of the successors have coexisted with Woolies, either locally or regionally, though seem to lack that special something. Some chains either veer towards the discount model whereas some veer towards housewares – having more in common with the long defunct Timothy Whites chain.

So, what might you ask, is The Old Woolies Magic? In a nutshell, any store chain that combines the discount model with the housewares model. A B&M Wilko perhaps (though a German car manufacturer might object to the initials). Ideally, it must have a good entertainment section, though the cool kids stream their videos and music online. Then again, that space could be taken up by pick and mix, a small selection of newspapers and magazines or books. Perhaps it should sell clothes.

Another part of the Woolies Magic was the location of its stores. They were predominantly in town centres for its 99-year existence across the UK. Yet in out-of-town retail – particularly the Woolco chain – they broke new ground with vast trading space under one roof and free car parking in the late 1960s. The Big W chain, which started in the 2000s could be seen as a retread of Woolco, but Woolworths was only doing what B&M and Home Bargains did ten years later. Both B&M and Home Bargains (including Quality Save) are noted for their town centre branches, even with an increased out-of-town presence.

Which store chains, might you ask, share some parts of Woolies DNA? Let’s weigh up their successors.

Poundland

Since its 1990 arrival on an unsuspecting public in Burton-upon-Trent, Poundland became the UK’s Favourite Single Price Retailer. It is interesting to note that: 1) Woolworths began life as a fixed price retailer (items priced 3d and 6d); and that 2) most of the UK’s former Woolworths units became Poundland stores. Ashton-under-Lyne’s branch was one example in Summer 2009.

Most of Poundland’s items are priced £1, though the chain has introduced more lines that are priced £1.01 upwards. This is especially true with the Pep and Co. section in each store (there’s no way on Earth you can get a winter coat for a quid in 2020).

In recent times, Poundland have added cut price books and CDs to their product lines. To stick with the original Everything A Pound premise, the CDs are reconditioned used stock. If you compare a 2005 Poundland store with a 2020 equivalent, there’s every chance you might enjoy the length and breadth of its wares. This is also reflected in the size of its more recent stores, and one that will be seen when Ashton-under-Lyne’s branch moves to the former Marks and Spencer/Bargain Buys unit.

With the exception of chart music, the bigger Poundland stores will have more in common with a medium sized local Woolworths. For Pep and Co., read Ladybird 35 years ago – only with adult clothing items. The newer stores will have a range of frozen food as well as chilled goods.

B&M

Where B&M differs from the later version of Woolworths stores is in its food offerings. In the UK, Woolworths scaled back its grocery offerings in the early 1980s, with fresh food counters being the first thing to go. By the mid-1980s, the only food on offer was sweets and crisps.

Whether you call in their out-of-town or town centre stores, the first thing that hits you in a B&M store is its grocery section. There is a comprehensive range of tinned food, dried goods and a modest selection of chilled food. In their out-of-town B&M Homestore branches, frozen food is also available. (Which is consistent with B&M’s ownership of the Heron Freezer Centres chain).

Less in common with Woolworths (though, more ironically in common with one-time sister chain B&Q) is its range of home and garden products. The town centre stores have a smaller selection of home and garden products and toiletries. In B&M Homestore branches (many of which former B&Q Supercentres), there is a wider range of flat pack furniture, paint, and garden tools (including its own garden centre).

The B&M chain has a bit of the old Woolies magic – again in the repurposing of former Woolworths branches across the UK – and in most of the product lines. Like Poundland, the customer experience is based on getting you out of the door as soon as possible. Woolworths’ town centre stores favoured counters over starting gate style checkouts. Oh, and B&M doesn’t offer pick and mix – nor recorded music of any description.

Whereas the Woolworths was more about inexpensive items instead of dirt cheap, B&M has stayed faithful to its hard discounting credentials. The flowerings of which seen at its first branch in Cleveleys. The store layouts allude themselves to supermarkets rather than department stores.

Wilko

Whereas Poundland (1990) and B&M (1978) were children of previous recessions, Wilko was founded by James Kemsey Wilkinson as Wilkinson Cash Stores back in 1930. That was thirty years after the UK arm of Frank Winfield Woolworth’s chain began trading in Liverpool. Wilko has been owned by the same family for 90 years.

Like its rivals, Wilko has taken on former Woolworths stores – most notably Sheffield’s Haymarket branch, which was handy for the now demolished Castle Market and Sheaf Market halls. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it sold pick and mix sweets. Where it improves upon B&M and Poundland is in its sale of housewares – particularly kitchenware. Also light bulbs, bin bags, and slug pellets; for many people, a first port of call for useful goods where a trip to a large superstore is overkill.

Where Wilko is at least the equal of Woolworths is in the sale of stationery. Low priced stationery that compares well with superstore chains. Also in greetings cards. The one area where Wilko lacks the Woolies Magic is in the sale of recorded music. Till about the mid-1990s, their first Ashton-under-Lyne branch had an entertainment section. Like a 1970s Woolworths Record Department, more inclined towards the cheap and cheerful. Often with CDs and cassettes of Chevron/Embassy type leanings – some of which published by Music For Pleasure and Pickwick as you would have seen in Woolies.

Home Bargains

For Home Bargains, its rate of expansion came at exactly the right time: right at the start of 2008’s global financial downturn. Like Poundland and Wilko, it also mopped up a fair chunk of ex-Woolworths stores. Some of which in prime locations and city centres.

Home Bargains started life as Home and Bargain with a single shop in Old Swan. It was founded in 1976 by Tom Morris (hence the holding company being known as T.J. Morris) and grew to become the largest private employer in Merseyside. It has over 22,000 employees and more than 500 stores. It aims to have a thousand stores and 40,000 employees. Their success by organic means is through careful purchasing policies and passing on the savings to its customers.

Associated with Home Bargains (or more specifically, T.J. Morris) is Quality Save. Though a separate entity with its Head Office in Swinton, Quality Save’s goods are supplied by T.J. Morris. To add to the confusion, both chains’ corporate imagery is designed by Anton Morris, who is also related to Home Bargains founder Tom Morris, as well as being a highly regarded graphic designer.

The Home Bargains experience is what you would expect for a discount store: regimented supermarket style layouts with tills near the end. It favours the shopper that would like to make their purchase and leave as quickly as possible. On the other hand, this allows for serendipitous purchases, meaning you could buy four tins of tuna and an electric blanket.

Unlike Woolworths and (towards the present day) Poundland, Home Bargains haven’t yet diversified into clothing. Like B&M, it has a grocery section in their stores. Of its non-food items, Home Bargains excels in seasonal lines and pet care goods.

As to whether some part of the old Woolies Magic is existent, Home Bargains has the product lines. The main exception – as seen with Poundland, B&M and Wilko – is its offerings in the home entertainment department. Just DVDs and CDs, for customers that still enjoy their films or music on physical media. Like B&M’s bigger stores, Home Bargains does well in the toy department. Not quite Woolies in its 1980s pomp, but a pleasing selection that compares well with most supermarket chains.

The Wonder of…?

Strictly speaking, very few retailers – even Woolworths’ successors – could claim to have the same Woolies magic. Across the board, we have noticed a few near misses, where the Wonder of Woolworth style is only part of each chain’s in-store experience. Some of the items that Woolworths sold would never be sold by today’s successors as the market has moved on.

For a start, superstore chains only sell popular CDs and DVDs rather than have a selection of albums or films by artist or title. This is where HMV – even in its shrunken state – bridge that gap. Where Woolworths sold stationery under their own brand and named brands (like Parker and Basildon Bond), Woolies’ successors’ stationery offerings are at the value end. That balance between own brand and named brand pens and pencils can still be seen at Ryman and WHSmith stores. Yet Ryman lacks the same reach that Woolworths had in our town centres. WHSmith might sell the posh pens, but their prices mean you are more likely to nip to Wilko for a bog-standard ballpoint pen. Or your local newsagent or convenience store.

Prior to their demise, Woolworths had a modest selection of gardening equipment. Some stores, like the one in Great Malvern, had a garden centre at the back. By the 1990s, the direction of travel favoured Kingfisher’s sister company to Woolworths in B&Q. Or purpose-built garden centres like Wyevale. Today, you are more likely to go to Dobbies in your car for bigger items. For anything smaller, Wilko or B&M fits the bill.

From our look at Woolies’ successors, there are two glaring omissions. One is the sale of posters. Using Ashton-under-Lyne’s second Woolworths store as our example, the Scandecor poster display was on the right hand of the record department counter. Close to the computer games section. You could spend a good few minutes looking through a selection of possible posters for your bedroom. Back when Wilko (then Wilkinson) opened its first Ashton store in Autumn 1992, posters were available in the entertainment section.

What none of Woolworths’ successors have is an in-store café in any of their larger stores. With a bit of creative remodelling, some of B&M’s Homestores could easily accommodate a modest café. The chances of Poundland or Home Bargains having a café in their store are slim at best; plus the Pound Café/Bakery market has already been stitched up by Sayers’ Pound Bakery/Pound Café chains. As for Wilko, some of their stores have dabbled with cafés in the past. We go back to their first Ashton-under-Lyne store, where the café was inherited from its previous tenant, Safeway.

After numerous attempts to resurrect Woolworths as a bricks and mortar brand, we think that ship has already sailed. Parts of Woolies is survived by its successors, some of which were contemporaries at one point. We also see it in our supermarkets. To a point, we see this online, though Amazon would never have the same variety of pick and mix sweets.

Thanks to online shopping, there are more ways than ever to shop. Its popularity on these shores is due to time-pressed households being unable to get to High Street shops (see also the success of online banking at the expense of branches). Parking rates drive shoppers to out-of-town stores where car parking is free.

Whoever decides to revive the Woolworths brand has one hell of a challenge to face. Multi-channel retailing – High Street, Internet and Mail Order – is an absolute must. Finding the right locations, and equable business rates is another. The next challenge is its identity. Would it be like a 1990s Woolworths, trying to recapture the spirit of its halcyon days? Or would it be a Woolworths that is suitable for 2020? For it to coexist alongside Wilko, Home Bargains and Poundland, the latter step should be considered.

S.V., 31 October 2020.

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