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.
The Lost Precinct looks at a retail business model that has gone the way of the dinosaurs
In my 40+ years existence on this planet, I have seen the loss of many a retail business model at the expense of another one. During my formative years, it was private video shops and television rental shops instead of e-cig shops or overpriced coffee shops. Furniture stores and electrical retailers used to be in town centres instead of windy retail parks.
Up until the noughties, the television rental shop was as much a part of any town centre as the Post Office, butchers or building society. Not only in large towns like Huddersfield, Bolton or Wolverhampton, but smaller towns like Stalybridge, Hyde and Whitstable. In the 1970s, there was plenty of TV rental chains with national and local chains vying for a slice of the rental pie.
It is fair to say that the business model came of age in the late 1950s, as easy terms became a popular way of purchasing the latest goods. The reasoning as to why television rental shops were popular was due to the reliability of 1950s television sets. Firstly, it wasn’t unusual for tellies to go kaput within a year, usually with the tube going down at impromptu moments. Secondly, a new TV would have costed about the same as a modest car. Therefore, till the 1990s at least, you rented your TV instead of buying one outright or on tick.
“You’d be glued to our sets, not stuck with them.”
The first such company in the UK to offer domestic equipment rentals was Radio Rentals. Formed in 1930, their trading name was self-explanatory. To keep up with the competition, televisions were added to the mix, thanks to the purchase of RentaSet in 1964. In 1968, Radio Rentals was acquired by Thorn Television Rentals, who also ran DER.
Multi-Broadcast, like Radio Rentals, would also be swallowed up by the Thorn conglomerate. In March 1968 it had 87 shops in London, the Home Counties and the Midlands.
DER was formed in 1939, providing a similar service to Radio Rentals. As Domestic Electric Rentals, they amassed 397 stores by March 1968. When Thorn Television Rentals acquired Radio Rentals by that date, both companies traded as going concerns till the 1980s. By the end of that decade, some of the DER shops were closed or became part of the Radio Rentals chain.
“I should have gone to British Relay…”
In some areas, getting decent TV reception by conventional means was impossible. To bridge the gap, some localities had cable-based systems, otherwise known as ‘piped TV’. Formed in 1931, British Relay Wireless existed to give residents clear radio reception without ugly aerials. By 1953 they went public, leading to a precursor of what is now multi-channel television. By 1958 they expanded into areas that didn’t have piped television systems and beefed up their presence in the High Street.
For many people, the best-known precursor to today’s multi-channel television landscape is Rediffusion’s cable service. Rediffusion cable subscribers chose their channel by turning a wall mounted dial that was plugged into the TV. As well as BBC One and your local ITV franchise, there was space for a couple of radio stations and another ITV franchise (which meant you could have had Associated-Rediffusion and Southern). Long before Sky, Netflix, YouTube, etc, you had up to 12 channels to play with.
Like British Relay, Rediffusion had High Street shops. These were part of a subsidiary called Rediffusion Vision Services, which also controlled the distribution and manufacture of television sets they supplied.
Ultimately, both British Relay and Rediffusion would be swallowed up by Granada at some stage. British Relay was taken over by Visionhire in 1979, which in turn was acquired by Granada. Rediffusion’s shops were acquired by Granada in the mid-1980s with the shops closing in 1986.
“Great service, great sets…”
Once upon a time, quite some time ago, ITV franchise holders had interests in TV rental companies. The most famous one was Granada who would be in that sector till the very end.
Granada Television’s TV rental business started life as Red Arrow, which was a nod to the early version of the Granada Television logo. The store chain had its own mascot, a chubby little Red Indian with a red feather.
By the 1970s, the Red Arrow stores were renamed as Granada stores. The Clarendon Bold typeface, as seen on idents before Coronation Street and on their Quay Street studios appeared on shop signs. Each Granada store had an air of exclusivity and embraced the video age from the late 1970s onwards. They also had branches in Canada where you could buy as well as rent TVs.
In 1968, the Yorkshire portion of Granada Television’s transmission area was taken over by Yorkshire Television. One company that had a stake in the franchisee was Telefusion. The Blackpool-based company also had a Yorkshire subsidiary called (you’ve guessed it) Telefusion Yorkshire.
Telefusion was a significant player in Northern England. Their flagship showroom in Blackpool had what was dubbed “Blackpool’s friendliest record bar”, encouraging you to play the latest sounds. (This also leads us to another possible Lost Precinct post on pop culture and electronics shops – see also NEMS with Brian Epstein and The Beatles).
Like British Relay, Telefusion was swallowed up by Visionhire: this time in 1987, leaving no trace of its branches and the Blackpool offices.
Completing the family circle
The other main player was Visionhire. Like Radio Rentals and Granada, they would be trading till the death throes of the industry. Formed in 1949, they had a nationwide presence offering you ‘the key to viewing’.
As with Granada, they increased their market share through acquisition. Maybe more so than their famous peers, after acquiring British Relay (1979) and Telefusion (1987). By 1987, you could buy as well as rent, as Visionhire offered a selection of ex-rental TVs and video recorders for outright purchase or credit terms.
By 1992, there was only three main players in the TV rentals market: Visionhire, Radio Rentals, and Granada. Come the following year, Granada Rentals purchased the Visionhire business. In some cases, the Granada stores downsized to the smaller Visionhire units, as had been the case with their Ashton-under-Lyne branch.
“We save you money, and serve you right…”
Another significant player in the world of TV rentals was Rumbelows, thanks in no small part to a previous chain, Fred Dawes. Before 1971, Fred Dawes offered TV and radio rentals. By then, all ninety Fred Dawes shops were electrical retailers in the Currys sense.
With Thorn EMI, Fred Dawes’ shops became branches of Rumbelows name. The electrical conglomerate had purchased a chain of shops in Hertfordshire called Sydney Rumbelow’s 1971 and chose to turn the name into a nationwide retailer.
In 1989, the business was sold to Radio Rentals with the legacy Rumbelows/Fred Dawes rental accounts transferring to its new parent. Further cuts were made in 1992 when some branches of Rumbelows became DER, Multibroadcast or Radio Rentals branches. This turned out to be a bad move as three years later, Rumbelows disappeared from our High Streets. Some became branches of Escom (and we all remember what happened to them in 1996).
Smaller regional players
In our latest Lost Precinct article, we looked at significant national and regional players. Here’s a few of the smaller regional chains you might remember.
Banks Television Rentals
A local chain based in and around Oldham, Banks’ had TV rental shops in the eastern part of Greater Manchester. I can remember two branches: one on Eldon Precinct in Primrose Bank off Oldham Way, and another on Market Street in Stalybridge, close to where the new version of The Rifleman is located.
For Colourvision, their flame flickered briefly during the 1980s and 1990s. In the North West of England, they were noted for the sale of Sky Multi Channel packages as well as the sale and rental of TVs and video cassette recorders. The branches I could recall best are the ones on Warrington Street (Ashton-under-Lyne) and Yorkshire Street (Oldham).
Martin Dawes and Fred Dawes
Martin Dawes is the son of Fred Dawes, who had a chain of TV rental shops in the 1950s. In 1969, Martin carried on his business with the his father’s business running in tandem.
Martin Dawes had a comprehensive number of branches across the North West of England. Though without the bricks and mortar presence it had, the company is still trading today as an online retailer. They still have a showroom in Warrington.
White and Swales
Along with his friend Peter Swales, Noel White founded a fifteen store chain of TV and radio rental shops in what is largely the southern part of Greater Manchester.
Both White and Swales were legendary names in Association Football. Noel White, before joining the board at Liverpool Football Club, was chairman at Altrincham Football Club. Back when the Robins were at their peak, Noel had made several attempts to get them in the Football League. There, he was thwarted by the Football League’s reelection system.
Peter Swales was best known for his twenty-year stint as chairman of Manchester City Football Club. Like Noel, he too sat on the Altrincham board, before moving to Maine Road in 1973.
Situated on Henshaw Street, Wildbores was one of Oldham’s most notable independent TV and video rental stores.
Decline and fall
By 1993, there was only two games in town in the world of TV rental stores: Granada and Radio Rentals. The business model was entering its twilight era as televisions became more reliable and more affordable. In spite of this, Thorn EMI (Radio Rentals’ parent company) thought the rent-to-buy model was a viable one in other ways.
Out of this came Crazy George in April 1994. In addition to TVs, stereo systems and video recorders, the model was extended to furniture and other white goods. For a while, this was a modest success, despite the exorbitant interest rates incurred by the pay weekly model. It was also their interest rates, with loans underwritten by Caversham Finance, that led to the chain store being banned from France. In 2002, they changed the name to Brighthouse.
Ultimately, Brighthouse would be one of the last remnants of a once extensive High Street business model. In 2000, Thorn EMI sold Radio Rentals to Granada Ltd’s TV rental arm. With the sale, the Granada and Radio Rentals names were nixed in favour of Boxclever. This led to store closures. For example, Ashton-under-Lyne’s branch of Radio Rentals becoming a very short lived branch of Cash Generator.
In the merged form, Boxclever ceased trading as a bricks and mortar retailer in 2003. Ironically, this was only months after individual ITV franchisees merged to form a single ITV in England and Wales. After avoiding administration, Boxclever is still trading today – as an online only business.
Today, kitchen appliances as well as TVs and audio equipment is available to rent. As for any links it has with Granadaland, it is the fact its warehouse is based in Wigan. According to the website, it says that “Some of you have been with us for a large part of that time” – in relation to its proud heritage. Which implies that the rent-to-buy or rental model suits a fair number of customers to this day.
“Great service, great sets…” only online these days
40 years ago, there was a lot of businesses that used bricks and mortar premises instead of binary digits. For some people, going to Ashton or Stalybridge to your local travel agent seems an alien prospect these days. The same could be said with actually going to the bank in person. If you wish to buy a TV in person, you are most likely to call in to TESCO, Sainsburys or Argos. Plus there’s no way of wanting to rent one in person.
Today’s forerunners to Visionhire, Red Arrow, Telefusion, Rediffusion and DER plod along online. Besides Boxclever, Dial-a-TV offers a similar service. As the name suggests, they started out as a telephone-only business. They are part of Hughes, one of Britain’s few white goods retailers not to have been swallowed up by Stanley Kalms’ empire.
So, why is there still a place for the rent-to-buy market? Some customers might not have enough savings to buy a TV outright nor the credit history to go into a competitive Hire Purchase agreement. Some people might only be living at a certain address for less than a year and find that renting suits them better than carrying their worldly goods from house to house. It is also the other fuss free nature: the higher cost that covers delivery, repairs, and installation. Not least being ahead of your peers with the latest technology.
There was more to the original retail model than the sale and rental of audio visual equipment. The whole industry supported numerous repair centres across the UK, also extensive fleets of service vans, engineers that knew a dodgy tube from a valve, and marketing strategies to name a few. Televisions were either manufactured in the summer months or rebadged; the Granada TV Rentals Finlandia model was a rebadged Salora set for example.
The scale of the TV rentals industry even inspired an ATV sitcom. Entitled The Squirrels, it focused on the adventures and non-adventures of International Rentals. One of its writers, Phil Redmond, went on to create Grange Hill and Brookside, but that’s another story for another time.
Before I go, I shall leave you with these messages…
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.
Everyone’s a winner (though ultimately some won more than others)
So, we go to our penultimate door within The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar. We hope you have enjoyed the journey so far and that it has got you talking to your younger relatives about forgotten foodmarkets or defunct discounters.
The Ad of Christmas Past
Each Christmas Day and Boxing Day, there seemed to have been an arms race between furniture and carpet discounters on ITV. Along with Queensway, there would be MFI’s ad; one for Allied Carpets; sometimes Wades would chip in. Depending on where you lived, ELS or any of the smaller regional chains. It was either them or the holiday adverts.
Once upon a time, long before Primark opened its first department stores in England, Scotland and Wales, there was one retailer that offered affordable smart and casual clothing. C&A – Clemens and August to use its full name – was a mainstay of many UK High Street. Continue reading “The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #22: C&A”→
Oh the colour, how much colour in this advert? A shame this was done in the pre-digital era, coming off a fuzzy VHS cassette. At first, we see seven children jumping out of jack-in-a-boxes with one letter spelling the name of the toy store. As well as looking like the after-effects of a young S.V. after too many Rainbow Drops, the tableau screams one thing: pester power. Continue reading “The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #21: Zodiac Toys”→
With the rise of the chest freezer and deep freeze fridge freezers, the early 1970s saw a rise in popularity for frozen food. Freezer Centres would form part of many a High Street. As well as regional chains, there was national players like Iceland, Cordon Bleu Freezer Centres and Square Meals. Another significant player was Bejam. Continue reading “The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #20 Bejam”→
Till the early 1980s, there was a seemingly unwritten rule that ensured all supermarket chain adverts shouted about its prices. TESCO’s Checkout campaigns in 1977 and 1982 perpetuated this though with less brash tones. By the mid-1980s, chains turned their guns towards the experience of shopping in a TESCO, ASDA, Safeway, or Fine Fare. Continue reading “The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #19 Gateway Superstores”→
What do you think you’re playing at by name checking former Hallé Orchestra conductors?
The Ad of Christmas Past
DER. Or if you prefer to use its original name, Domestic and Electrical Rentals. The advertisement eschews the ‘do not touch’ approach by encouraging customers to try before they rent! Which in the mid 1980s when this ad came out, was an antithesis to other white goods retailers of the time. Continue reading “The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #18 DER”→