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Operation Focus transforms Woolworths between 1985 and 1989

 

The short-lived but highly innovative Kidstore format from the 1980s (Picture with special thanks to Bob Waldron)


As work on the Cornerstone strategy continued, a separate team was set up to explore a more radical alternative, a shop 'just for children'. Consultants worked on the look while Buyers chose the products.

The first 'Kidstore' took the place of the Woolworth in Ealing Broadway, West London. It opened on 3 April, 1987. Shoppers liked the new look and sales were good, prompting two further outlets in Colchester, Essex and the Riverdale Centre, Lewisham, SE13.

Observers were impressed that so much of the store's range was new and different. The team had reinvented the range of sweets, toys and clothes.

 

The interior of Kidstore Ealing


The Kidstore team had excelled. Despite buying for a tiny chain, they had matched prices with Woolworths, at the same margin, for a brighter, more contemporary range.

The Board concluded that it would be best to adopt the ideas across the main-chain, building the best of the Kidstore concept into the core format. New plans changed the space mix, extending Toys and Clothing and dropping the worst performing ranges. The approach came to be known as 'Operation Focus'.

 

One of many older-style F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. fascias that survived until 1986, contributing to the branding and identity challenge for the new ownersThe look and feel of an up-to-date Woolworth store before the focus strategy. The picture is from 1985.


The challenge was to find a formula to suit large and small stores, whether new or old.

A large proportion of the branches had remained unchanged on the outside for more than thirty years.

 

Brightly coloured signs were used to explain the new ranges to customers visiting their local Woolworths. These signs were used from 1987 until 1994.An study identified six key 'stories' or product areas in large, stable markets:

  • Entertainment - LPs, Tape Cassettes, Pre-Recorded Videos and PC Software
  • Toys and Stationery - with items for fun, school and offices at home
  • Kidswear - quality garments at low prices, particularly for the under fives
  • Gifts and Sweets - Confectionery, Cards and Party Products
  • Looks - Fashion Accessories, Cosmetics, Toiletries and Jewellery
  • Home, Kitchen and Garden - practical, stylish living and Do-It-Yourself


Following the Cornerstone pattern, as the stores adopted the new look they were renamed 'Woolworths'. The remaining ranges were dropped. Stocks of Food, Delicatessen, Wines and Spirits, Adult Clothing, Audio and Television, Fishing and Leisure Products, Home Brew, Toiletries, Furniture and Floor Coverings vanished in 1986-7, along with the charge card and credit centre.

 

Woolworths stores were divided into two distinct groups - Comparison (large stores for City Centres and Major Towns) and Convenience (Smaller stores for local High Streets and smaller provincial towns)

Stores were divided into three types:

  • Malls of over 18,000 square feet (5486m2). This format was tested at Reading, Berkshire and then dropped.
  • Comparison (top right), initially branded 'Woolworths Weekend' for large towns
  • Convenience (bottom right), initially called 'Woolworths General Store' for High Streets


All stocked the same core range, extended with additional breadth and depth as space allowed.

For example in smaller branches 'Looks' was made up of just hosiery and hair goods, while the large outlets had personal service Jewellery and Cosmetics counters, as well as handbags and bright, contemporary fashion accessories.

The interiors were distinctly different. Shoppers were impressed by the look of the first General Store in Bicester, Oxfordshire (below, left). The prototype Woolworths Weekend in Gallowtree Gate, Leicester (below, right) was also a hit.

At the heart of the success of focus were two new ranges - Ladybird and Chad Valley.

 

To secure the Focus strategy, the parent company acquired its wholesale music supplier, Record Merchandisers Ltd, for £6.5m. It was later renamed Entertainment (UK) Ltd. It took on responsibilities traditionally undertaken by the Buying Office, choosing the range, setting the prices and supply the goods. An EUK field force helped to train the stores and maintain a consistent standard.

 

Interior views of new look Woolworth stores for Convenience Towns (General Store, Bicester, Oxon, left) and larger Comparison towns (Woolworths Weekend, Gallowtree Gate, Leicester) - pictured in 1985

 

A Dixons storefront from 1986

Testing of 'Focus' was accelerated in response to a hostile takeover bid from Dixons Stores Group. As the acrimonious bid-battle continued, the new format was rushed into more than fifty stores, each selected because it was in a town with a high concentration of shareholders.

The suffix names "Weekend" and "General Store" were dropped after customers starting asked why the big stores didn't open Monday to Friday and why the small stores didn't sell Cornflakes! The extravagance of the shopfitting was also scaled back. The fancy cartwheel lights and pine shelving were dropped for mass roll-out. By 1990 every store had moved to the new look. 300 branches had been fully refurbished, and 450 had been spruced up and re-arranged. Ironically, in accelerating the change, the bid battle helped to sustain the chain.