The Wonder of Woolies
It was an unhappy new year in January, nearly a decade ago, when Woolies finally shut its Campbeltown doors. News first surfaced that the iconic British retailer was in trouble in November 2008, but Woolworths stamped on the suggestion Campbeltown could close. Nationally the firm had become laden with debt and when it collapsed it owed £385 million. The brand’s failure, just short of its centenary in the UK, cost 27,000 jobs and left 815 stores looking for a new owner. Within less than two months, on January 2, the store of pick and mix pulled the shutters down. Built on the site of the Old Quay Head the store’s construction was, believe it or not, a controversial decision in its day. The old block of properties was considered beyond renovation, and demolished. The original plan was for a modern municipal building, but this proved to be too expensive. The site was sold at a price agreed by the district valuer for what was thought the laughably low sum of £2,100. The store took only months to build and opened in August 1963; at the time it was thought by many to be too modern and out of keeping. In the next 45 years it gained a firm place in the affections of the town. Thought to be the original ‘five-and-dime’ business, Frank Winfield Woolworth started his empire on February 22 1878, in Utica, New York, but it stumbled and closed down quickly. A friend suggested Lancaster, Pennsylvania as a better location and Frank opened with his sign from the Utica store. It was a success and, in the Victorian age, he pioneered many of the constants of 20th and 21st century retailing – merchandising, direct purchasing and sales and customer services practices still in use. It grew to be one of the largest retail chains in the world. Increasing competition led to its decline in the 1980s and in America it failed in 1997 four years later becoming Foot Locker Inc. Since the UK Woolworths collapse in 2009, almost all premises have been filled, mainly by similar types of stores selling discounted goods. According to research company Radius, Poundland owns the most ex-Woolworth premises followed by Iceland and B&M Bargains. Woolworths has survived in Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and in Germany, with at least 500 stores nationwide. Last week the town heard that The Original Factory Shop which replaced Woolworths, at 1-3 Main Street, is also to pull out although there was much ambiguity about the decision.
Woolworths’ staff gathered outside the store, photographed by Malcolm McArthur.