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A prototype Woolworth Superstore for the 1980s

Not a new style Woolworth but 21st Century Shopping - the boast behind the concept store opened in Broadmead, Bristol in 1982

Co-founder of B&Q David Quayle, who served as Woolworths Development Director from 1980 to 1982


F.W. Woolworth took control of B&Q in 1980. Its co-founder, David Quayle, was elected to a Directorship of the High Street giant and became the Chairman of a new B&Q Division. Keen to exploit a fresh pair of eyes, he was also asked to develop a Woolworth 'superstore of the future'. It was hoped that this would set a new direction for a hundred giant city centre red fronts, which were the chain's pride and joy. He was given a free hand, and set about the task with zeal and determination. He proposed to:

  • prove his ideas in a typical superstore, choosing Broadmead, Bristol, Avon
  • ignore the status quo, but start with products already stocked at Woolco and in the American parent company's fashion and footwear businesses
  • upgrade the management, hiring university graduates to help him to explore the market, develop trading ideas and deliver superior customer service

Woolworth store managers were surprised by the candour of the new man. He told their 'Management Quarterly' magazine that he did not intend to be constrained by the brand's long heritage. He was not planning a variety store.

"What's a variety store? A place that sells lots of different categories of merchandise, I suppose. The variety store is something at which Woolworth has arrived. I am not at a point of arrival, I am at a point of departure. My starting point was to establish what I thought the consumer wanted, and to make him an offer. It is true that 21st Century will provide a number of different categories of merchandise, but my offer to the consumer is not 'come here for variety'. My offer is much more definite, and cohesive, than that."    

 

The large Woolworth superstore in Broadmead, Bristol, Avon, which was rebranded "21st Century Shopping" in 1982
Fellow Board Members feared the paln was too radical, but concluded that Broadmead was only one of a thousand stores. They gave the go-ahead.

The Bristol building had been constructed in the 1950s. It replaced a branch in Castle Street which had been destroyed by enemy action during World War II. It was one of the chain's largest multi-floor stores.

Bristol had one of the largest and most modern shopping centres in the West of England. It attracted shoppers from a wide area. Quayle aimed to target the 80,000 who commuted into the City each day. He felt that traditional variety stores were ill-suited to city workers. When asked about Woolworth's existing superstores, he replied "I think some of them work and some of them are a muddle, but that is really none of my business."

 

A 1981 concept drawing for the proposed new look Woolworth store for the City Centres
Quayle's 21st Century Store centred on Leisure. At the front it offered sports goods and clothing, which came from Woolco range and from American sister company Footlocker, which had begun openings in Britain. The centre of the ground floor was a fashion shop, offering a fashionable, upmarket range that was displayed attractively.

The layout also including a large music range, with LPs and Tapes to suit every taste from classical to heavy metal, along with Hi-Fi equipment and large-screen colour televisions. A separate area of the store, known as the 'Shopping Village', consisted of a small supermarket with a convenience range of groceries, toiletries and household goods. Upstairs the store included a Food Court, which offered a choice of six different menus, including a Burgers, a Baked Potato Bar and a Fish and Chip shop.

 

Quayle believed that city workers expected speedy and courteous service. He hoped that the new range would boost sales and would offer higher margins than the traditional format. He increased staff numbers and paid more to attract higher calibre staff, particularly for selling and customer service. He aspired to offer advice and personal service to every shopper, replacing shop assistants with sales advisers, and paid a premium to fill as many of the posts as possible with university graduates.

Early sales at the store were poor. 21st Century Shopping did not succeed in its primary goal of attracting the more affluent city workers who had abandonned the Woolworth store in the Seventies. Loyal shoppers were disappointed to find that 'their store' no longer carried some of the traditional ranges. Before Quayle had the chance to address the shortcomings by publicising the venture, events intervened. A consortium of investors took control through a management buy-in, separating the British chain from its American parent and Footlocker. The new owners had very different ideas about how the red-front chain should develop and had based their calculations on the closure and sale of many of the largest branches. The failing Bristol store became one of their first sacrifices. It was summarily sold to a developer. Cruelly a restructure saw David Quayle lose not only the Bristol experiment, but control of B&Q, which he had built from scratch.

 

An artist's impression of the fascia at the Bristol 21st Century Shopping store, which was captioned 'The New Style Woolworth'

Quayle's ideas for Woolworth were never given the chance to gel. Many were ahead of their time. He was right that by the twenty-first century there would again be convenience grocery shopping facilities in town centres, and that Food Courts, Entertainment megastores and upscale displays of leisure products would become part of everyday shopping life. But each of today's market leaders is a specialist in its chosen market rather than trying to squeeze them all under the same roof as the B&Q Founder envisaged.