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Limited Story Stores in the 1990s

 

Signs from the proof-of-concept stores that offered a narrower range of merchandise, excluding Home, Kitchen and Garden to see if a 'specialist' Woolworths would have the right economicsAt the end of the Eighties and beginning of the Nineties there were further trials to develop a more radical formula. At a time of rapidly rising retail rents, the goal was to find an approach that would allow Woolworths to trade profitably from small premises in large towns and cities. This would enable re-openings in the prime locations that had closed when Kingfisher redeployed its property assets.

To test the idea, the stores at Abington Street, Northampton and Calverley Road, Tunbridge Wells were converted to a 'limited story' format, abandonning Home, Kitchen and Garden to offer larger ranges of Entertainment, Kids Toys and Clothes, Confectionery and Cards and Stationery. From the outset, while sales per customer increased, the number of customers visiting fell dramatically. This decimated the stores' total sales and profit. It was clear the Home, Kitchen, Garden and Looks displays helped to attract customers to the stores.

Other limited story formats had differing levels of success. After years away from Manchester after the major fire in 1979, no less than three small stores opened in the Arndale Centre, as shown below. The first was branded 'Kids' with a tiny 'at Woolworths' suffix. It featured large Ladybird logos in the windows and sold just clothes and toys. The second, 'Woolworths Gifts and Sweets', sold confectionery, cards, newpapers and magazines and, of course, pic'n'mix. The third was a freestanding entertainment shop, 'Woolworths Music and Video'.

 

Three small 'limited story' Woolworths stores in the Arndale Centre, Manchester in the late 1980s

 

The Sweets and Cards and Music and Video stores proved unviable. Despite steady sales, the merchandise mix did not generate enough profit to cover the cost of wages and rent. The same applied to other freestanding Music and Video Stores in Putney, South West London, Winchester, and The Arndale Centre, Eastbourne. But the Kids store caught the public's imagination. Despite a small footprint, it soon overtook the flagship Croydon store to the national top spot for clothing sales. You can see its layout in our Gallery feature.

The limited story concept was discredited by its poor overall trading results. The Ladybird success was caught in the crossfire. As retail rents slipped back and supermarkets moved out of town, affordable properties became available for new, full-sized traditional stores.

 

New Woolworths openings in the 1990s were no tall story, but making a profit in shopping centres was a real juggling act.

The dynamic Retail Director, Martin Toogood, launched an initiative to re-open in some of the Cities abandonned after the Kingfisher takeover. His new stores were highly compact and much smaller than those that had been closed and sold to raise funds for expansion elsewhere in the Group. They were located in prime traffic spots, including new Shopping Centres. The first to open was in St Stephen Street, Norwich, Norfolk, followed by the Bon Accord Centre in Aberdeen, Renfrewshire, Scotland and a welcome return to the firm's original home in Liverpool, with a small branch just inside the St John's Centre precinct.

An unusual branch opened in Sheffield's Meadowhall Centre in Yorkshire. The firm took two neighbouring, unlinked shop units and split the range between them in order to keep rental costs down.

The compact format proved viable, despite the high occupancy costs. Managing these outlets was difficult because of the limited space and the frustration of lost sales on the busiest days when queues started to build, making the store inaccessible to customers wishing to enter.

 

Retail Director Martin Toogood and Store Manager, Ken Webster, open a new Woolies in Slough's Observatory Centre on 14 June 1991An expansion programme saw the brand return to thirty towns over four years. Toogood cut the ribbon and greeted customers personally at each opening day. To guarantee a good start, the supremo persuaded seasoned professionals from his largest branches to manage the new flagships, squeezing more sales from less space.

With the brand back in fashion, several Shopping Centres, like Slough's Observatory Centre (left), offered 'anchor' sites in new developments at heavily discounted, capped rents. These stores opened long before the neighbouring properties were occupied, and helped to persuade others to take on tenancies.

The early promise of the new outlets turned sour after Woolworths' demerger from Kingfisher. The parent sold such long-leases to property investors, committing the chain to pay full market rental for the 30 years from 2001-2031.

 

HRH The Princess of Wales opens Woolworths in the Watergate Centre 'the heart of Lincoln' and indeed the heart of the nation on 3 October 1991

 

 

Toogood agreed to make way for a rather special guest to open the new store in Lincoln's Watergate Centre on 3 October 1991.

HRH The Princess of Wales drew a huge crowd as she cut the ribbon. Diana graciously provided a photo opportunity and went on a walkabout that those present will tell their great grandchildren about!

The shopping centre was branded 'The heart of Lincoln'. They could not have asked for a better start.

 

By 1992 the idea of Limited Story stores had run its course. The new City Centre branches proved much more profitable than the smaller upstarts. The three Manchester stores were quietly closed in January 1994, with the other Entertainment stores closing in December or moving to the fascia of one of two new members of the Kingfisher Group, either MVC, The Music and Video Club, or Titles Video.