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Kids and Celebrations: 21st Century Fashions at Woolies (2000-2008)

Ladybird and Woolworths are now brands of Shop Direct Group. All trademarks are acknowledged.

After almost twenty years as part of the Kingfisher Group, Woolworths demerged in the Summer of 2001. At the time the High Street chain was generating annual profits approaching £100m, and enjoying a period of renewal. New stores were opening both in City Centres abandonned as Kingfisher diversifieid in the 1980s, and out-of-town under the Big W fascia. The demerger was prompted principally by investor demands that Kingfisher focus its energies on reviving the fortunes of their category-killing DIY store, B&Q.

The demerger saw big changes at the top of the Company, with new Directors joining, principally from Dixons, and a new strategy for the new millennium which the incoming CEO, Trevor Bish-Jones, dubbed 'Kids and Celebrations'.

Trevor Bish-Jones, the Chief Executive of Woolworths Group after its demerger from Kingfisher until shortly before the business collapsed in 2008Bish-Jones believed the formula needed a radical overhaul. The traditional Home ranges - DIY, Electricals, Gardening, Kitchen and Haberdashery - were, he felt, past their sell-by date, and the range of confectionery was over-extended. His formula was to boost the ranges of Children's Clothing and Toys, capitalising on the strength of the Ladybird and Chad Valley ranges, and promote these departments to the front of the shop, trimming back on the other ranges to make room. Also, to leverage the Group's strength in music and video, he planned to grow the retail and wholesale operations at Woolworths, MVC and Entertainment UK Ltd.

Buyers were challenged to think differently, taking decisions more quickly and speeding products to the shelves. They were told to buy for a new target customer - 'Debbie', a mum with small children at home - instead of the longstanding 'everyday for everyone' approach. He also sought improved product margins (profit per item) and more 'big ticket' (dearer) items.

The CEO promised a new-look, with an improved shopping environment. He believed this would make Woolworths famous again as 'Debbie's store'.

 

A new look Woolworths at Kettering, Northants in 2002 - one of three pilot stores for 'Kids and Celebrations' - the store chain's new strategy for the new millennium


The new look was revealed at Bish-Jones's local store in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire in the autumn of 2002 and, a few weeks later, at Kettering, Northamptonshire (illustrated, left) andat the slightly smaller store at Market Harborough in Leicestershire.

The environment had been transformed, with better lighting, a central red walkway, and new fixtures for both clothing and footwear.

As the revised buying principles took effect, new ranges were added. These included kids fashion accessories sold as 'Girls, Girls, Girls'. Other innovations included a popular range of dressing up outfits, both for adults and children, and a lot more character brands,

 

City reaction to the new look was very positive, and while the sales growth was modest, the overall margin contribution of the stores rose signficantly as a result of the changed mix of products sold. The final test was to apply a refined version to the large 18,000 square foot store at Kingston-upon-Thames in South West London in the Autumn of 2003. Kingston (illustrated below) was transformed, with sales rocketing and very strong customer feedback, confirming the decision to roll-out. See the opening day video.

The Woolworths in Royal Kingston-upon-Thames, London, England's new look fashion department in 2003

The 100th Woolworths store to get a new look in the new millennium - Peckham in South East London, which opened in 1912 was refreshed in 2005.  This is their Ladybird-branded children's clothing department.

Between Spring 2004 and Autumn 2006 almost 200 large branches got the Kids and Celebrations new look. The refurbishment included improvements to the lighting, a new floor and new, much more adaptable fixtures that could accommodate either longer garments for older children or baby sizes with front-on displays, or side-on displays of clearance products.

The picture shows the store in Rye Lane, Peckham, South East London, which was the hundredth to be converted.

Despite good performance from the clothing and toys ranges in the stores, the growth in sales was not sufficient to make up the volume lost on the ranges that had been removed. And meanwhile 'Debbie' was spoilt for choice, espoused not just by Woolies but also by Adams, Mothercare, Matalan, BHS, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's.

 

Kids and Celebrations was not reserved just for town centres. Efforts were made to update the Big W out-of-town formula, which had struggled after the break-up of the Kingfisher Group, as former sister-companies withdrew from the format.

The stores at Norwich and Tamworth were given a makeover with larger ranges of clothing and toys, building a range to rival any other retailer. Ladybird was bolstered with accessories, including a surprisingly popular black and red pushchair.

New ranges of adult clothing from Peacocks and Store 21 (formerly Quality Seconds) added weight to the clothing offer too - and generated healthy profits, particularly where they were managed as concessions by the Operators themselves.

Again the formula looked smart and was popular with pundits, but it too struggled to generate the overall return necessary to justify roll-out across the remaining out-of-town stores, which were either given a cheaper facelift or, where possible, sold to rival retailers.

 

A new range of Ladybird accessories proved very popular at the Norwich out-of-town Woolworths in 2004. The picture shows just one quarter of the display space allocated to children's clothing in the 50,000 square foot store.

The sheer scale of the out-of-town stores, (which were already dramatically smaller than the original Big W branches opened towards the end of the Kingfisher era,) is illustrated by the picture below which shows a longshot of the children's clothing department.

A panorama of the Ladybird clothing department in the large out-of-town Woolworths store at Byker, Northumberland on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Intended to be the prototype for a major roll-out, the new look in the small Woolworths store at Kingswood, Bristol was repeated in less than a dozen stores before the demise of the store-based business in January 2009The 500 smaller branches got little attention under Bish-Jones. In 2005 the CEO's 'Elastic Walls' vision aimed to offer the full range in local High Streets via an ordering catalogue ('The Big Red Book'), or using new touch-screen kiosks or the web-based capabilities of the EPOS till system.

The concept was tested in Kingswood, Bristol. Customers could order from the larger range in the Big W store at Imperial Park nearby. New signage explained the range available and made the sales floor look bright and fresh, but only generated a handful of orders from the extended range. Most customers opted to buy those items that they could take home with them.

The CEO went on to invest heavily to create a 'Big Red Book' catalogue and the Supply Chain to fulfil orders. The to-order range consisted mainly of toys and electrical items. The clothing offer was limited to a few dress-up clothes and baby layette gift packs.

A handful of further stores were refurbished to the Kingswood look but the returns were insufficient to justify roll-out. Instead a till-based ordering service called 'In Store Ordering' was promoted nationally using point of sale material. The cardboard signs could do little to cover up the steady deterioration of the 500 small stores as the effects of severe cutbacks to the maintenance and cleaning budgets started to show.

In 2007-8 there were changes at the top, prompting a plan to offer better value for money and focus energy on the smaller stores. Sadly time ran out before investors could reap the rewards of the move, as Woolworths Group ran out of cash and its bankers refused to extend further credit.

'The trouble with Woolworths is that they stayed in the past and didn't engage with the modern world' - according to several sections of the media.  It's a shame they didn't visit this branch in Kingswood, Bristol to see why Woolworths had recently been honoured for the best Customer Touchpoint System in the World

In parallel at headquarters Woolworths appointed a Brand Manager to maximise the potential of their investment in the Ladybird and Chad Valley names. Working on a very tight budget this soon started to prove the potential. A chain of elegant franchised Ladybird shops opened in the Republic of Ireland, followed by further licensors in Malaysia, China and the Middle East.

Perhaps one day we will see Ladybird shops operating as a franchise in the British High Street. Who knows? Perhaps the Irish will take up the gap left by the closure of the High Street stores, or perhaps, as some pundits predict, we will all learn to shop for clothes in virtual reality on the worldwide web. For now, if you're looking for good value, well-made Ladybird clothes, just head to woolworths.co.uk and see the giant strides that Shop Direct has made in taking the brand forward into a new era.

A new addition to the growing Ladybird chain in the Republic of Ireland - as the franchise operator opens in Blanchardstown on the outskirts of Dublin

New franchise Ladybird stores opened in Saudi Arabia (left) and Hong Kong (right), some of the many branches trading around the world

The Woolworths Museum would like to thank Professor David Jenkins and Dr Kaori O'Connor of the Pasold Research Foundation for their encouragement in preparing this feature.

 

Ladybird and Woolworths are now brands of Shop Direct Group. All trademarks are acknowledged.