Europe's largest confectioner under Kingfisher (1982-2001)
Many of the ideas took shape in an experimental superstore in Broad Street, Reading, Berkshire, called 'The Woolworth Mall'. Its designers looked at each range and display. They struck gold when they worked on the sweets counters, with a wealth of new ideas. There was an innovative display (right), new sweets in brighter wrappers, and an extra range just for children, called 'Kids Pic'n'Mix', which had a counter of its own.
The store became hothouse where ideas could be tested and refined. At a glance some concepts looked crazy. There were huge moon bubble-sized dispensers for supersized Liquorice Bootlaces over two feet long (60cm), and brightly coloured 'fried egg' sweets. Both were sold unwrapped.
The ideas were refined and adapted and incorporated into 'Gifts and Sweets' for extension across the chain. Liquorice Bootlaces and Fried Eggs became million sellers in a new, packeted Kids range called 'Bags of Fun'. An enhanced Kids Pic'n'Mix counter had plastic boots to sell unwrapped sweets by weight.
All of these ideas went into a second prototype store called Woolworths Weekend. For a short time the layout included a personal service, refrigerated display of Belgian Chocolates. This is visible just inside the front doors in the centre of the picture above. Sales were not sufficient to justify the high investment that would have been needed to take the concept forward. The Weekend suffix was also dropped for roll-out. With those exceptions the prototype formed the template to modernise the whole chain.
Every store stocked the new Pic'n'Mix selection including a dedicated Kids Pic'n'Mix fixture. The confectionery counter was modernised by adding a hanging section, dominated by own label 'Bags of Fun' sweets and branded items like Sherbet Fountains. Signs were improved and the Christmas and Easter selections were given a major overjaul. The Buying Team worked to enhance product quality and variety, while driving down prices to ensure that Woolworths remained a value store.
When the stores offered large Quality Street tins at below cost price it caused a furore in the industry. Such blatant loss-leading was very rare at the time. Supermarkets accused the supplier, Rowntrees of York, of selling more cheaply to Woolworths, and threatened to stop ordering any of their items. As a result the High Street stores were unable to obtain further stock. As a work-around, after 1987 Rowntrees made exclusive jars and slightly different-sized tins for Woolworths (right). Today the grocers regularly sell tins at a slightly reduced weight to achieve a low headline price, and offer lines like new release CDs and Harry Potter books below cost price to persuade families to shop with them.
Another example of product innovation was the development of an own-label up-market chocolate brand - Classique Chocolatier . Packaging was designed in-house, while suppliers were invited to submit recipes and prices. When it came to choosing a partner, the firm considered it a bonus that the cheapest tender was from a factory in Belgium. The packaging was hastily updated to included the words 'Luxury Belgian Chocolates'.
The great skill of the Buyer was to choose chocolates that customers would find delicious and to present them to look extra special. Margins on the own label were much higher than the branded equivalent, despite a lower price on the shelf. Retail gurus call such successes a 'virtuous circle' today.
The Confectionery Buyer was one of the last to follow the firm's traditional career path, working his way up through the stores, with a spell in area and regional management and a period of training before stepping into the role. He claimed that the long induction had given him the guile to push his overall margin to over 30%, while also dropping the price on the shelves.
Exceptional sales of Classique allowed the Buyer to negotiate keener prices from the branded manufacturers too. Their ranges had to deliver the same return on whatever space was allocated.
Seasonal sweets rocketed under the new management. The firm had long enjoyed a dominant share of Easter Eggs and Christmas Novelties. Clever marketing in the Eighties brought further success. By 1990 the High Street stores sold over twenty million eggs each year - a third of the whole market. Nine million were sold in the four days to Easter Saturday, the equivalent of 1.6 eggs for everyone under 18 in the UK.
There was innovation at Halloween too. Spun chocolate was used to make Pumpkins and Spiders' Webs. The same technique was used to design Christmas Tree novelties and stocking fillers. The product development helped Woolworths to maintain its dominant share in Britain, and gradually built the brand to become the largest confectioner in Europe. At one time the High Street stores accounted for 10% of Cadbury's worldwide turnover.
It seemed that the Kingfisher principle of building on strengths and growing dominant market shares had firmly restored Woolworths' fortunes and set the business up for successful trading for many years to come. Certainly the British were happier and fatter for their regular visits to the High Street stores!
Fast links to related items in the Woolworths Museum
Pic'n'Mix and Sweets Gallery