Thousands of workers face dole
WOOLWORTHS, a retail beacon for nearly a century, is on the brink of collapse as attempts to find a buyer for the chain appear to have failed. Up to 30,000 employees, hundreds of them in Kent, are preparing to begin 2009 on the dole as administrators at Deloitte announced a closing down sale at all 815 Woolworths stores last Thursday. Woolworths, a legendary shopping name since 1909 when it opened its first store in Liverpool, operates at least 10 stores in Kent and Medway, including Ashford and Tenterden. The company has been squeezed by the retail downturn, and the banking crisis – coupled with debts of £385m – has added to its troubles. For the past 99 years, Woolworths has attracted millions of shoppers looking for items they could not find anywhere else and at reasonable prices, but has struggled to find an identity in recent times. Its range of pic’n’mix sweets, CDs, electricals, DIY and kitchenware has lost customers to niche retailers picking away at Woolworths’ market share. But it still retains much affection and in normal times entrepreneurs would probably be prepared to take a punt on keeping the name alive. However, the economic downturn has stalled interest from would-be buyers, who have also been put off by the size of Woolies’ debt. Supermarkets and other stores are likely to be excited at the chance of snapping up prime town centre locations, and names like Tesco, Iceland and Wilkinson could soon replace the distinctive red facia. Administrators had hoped to keep the stores open until well into the New Year, but with stock reducing fast there will be little to sell and the shutters could come down in front of many shop windows by Christmas. Usdaw, the trade union representing shop workers, has expressed shock at the latest developments. However, administrators are still actively seeking buyers for the Woolworths assets, and negotiations with a number of interested parties are ongoing. Staff would be consulted and given support in the event of redundancies.