There are rustlings in the pick'n'mix. With designer kitchenware and gourmet sweets, Woolworths is going trendy. Hester Lacey on a long- overdue facelift
Popping into the caff in Woolworths for tea and scones will soon be old hat. These days one is more likely to swing by for a cappuccino and a slice of passion fruit bavarois. The high street stalwart that has always seemed so firmly rooted in a bygone era of bicycle repair kits, sweets by the quarter, sensible kiddy-clothes, string, glue and mousetraps, is making a sudden, belated leap into the 20th century.

Nationwide, the transformation will be gradual, as the potential shock to venerable customers of a nervy disposition is considerable. Visiting the flagship Doncaster store, a couple paused on the threshold, in some consternation. "It's... changed," said he, astutely. "It certainly has," replied his wife, plunging determinedly towards the new kitchenware section.

The bright red neon frontage of the new-look store, refurbished last October, shrieks aloud in the somewhat faded surrounds of Doncaster's Frenchgate shopping centre. Shopping is spread over two floors. On the ground floor, scatter-cushions, green and blue glassware and blonde wood fittings proclaim a neo-Habitat. The kitchen store and lighting departments are new concepts; the kitchen store boasts an eye-poppingly extensive range of Eternal Beau tableware (that ubiquitous pink-and-green flower- and-garland design). In the home accessories section, a woman was stocking up with fashionably fish-shaped ceramic bathroom ornaments. "I'm giving these out as presents," she explained. "They don't look as if they came from Woolworths, and they're much cheaper than Ikea or The Pier. I just hope none of my friends needs to return them."

The old-fashioned barley sugar and butterscotch at 62p a quarter are still there; but now they rub shoulders with "gourmet" American jelly beans at pounds 1.65 per 100g; while the sandwiches in the cold cabinet boast an array of ciabattas with exotic fillings alongside the ham-on-white. Over by fine foods, another woman was choosing a box of biscuits. "Ones like this cost a bomb from Marks & Spencer. I just wish they did a bigger range of posher things like these." Meanwhile two schoolboys were hotly debating the relative merits of sherbet dips and sticky green ropes of Fungus's Snot.

The upstairs floor resembles nothing so much as the Disney store on London's Regent Street, a frantic array of toys, games, videos, tapes. Over near a whole section dedicated to Barbie - a dazzling pink cornucopia - games and puzzles are stacked on shelving designed to look like a train, complete with driver's cabin. With the wonky mirrors and test-your-strength hammers and the taped stories to listen to on the phone, some customers mistake it for a playground. Four-year-old Martin was clinging to the wooden train- driver's seat and screaming. "He's already been in there 20 minutes, but he just doesn't want to leave," muttered his harrassed mother, attempting to prise his fingers loose. Over by the children's clothes (still bearing the familiar Ladybird brand, but now including trendy acid-citrus ski gear) another small boy, plus dad, were sitting transfixed by 101 Dalmatians, showing on a large-screen monitor (Toy Story was showing at the other end of the store). Toys to try out are all over the place; though the computer games have been colonised by squads of teenagers, intent on hacking into the selection of decorous, officially-available educational games to replace them with something a bit more splattery.

The real jewel in the crown, however, appeals at least as much to parents as children: the in-store creche, or Playcentre. For pounds 2, parents can buy a whole blessed hour of shopping peace, leaving their under-eights frolicking on the climbing frame, or in the ball pool, or on the slide (an extra hour is pounds 1.50). The Playcentre can take up to 30 children, and is frequently oversubscribed. Qualified staff supervise; there are mini loos and washbasins. Once inside, the children are decked out in numbered tabards with electronic sensors; should they stray, an alarm will sound. Parents depositing their kiddies are photographed, and the child will only be released to the face shown on film, as an additional security measure. The visitors' book (a visitors' book? in Woolworths?) is full of outpourings of near-hysterical gratitude. "No more having to drag him round shopping thank goodness"; "I have never got so much done in an hour." Lucy, a tiny regular, was shoving grown adults aside in her frenzy to get in.

Store manager Steve Storey is a proud and happy man. "We are head and shoulders above all the other stores in Doncaster!" he says. "Even - dare I say it - Marks & Spencer!" Woolies giving M&S a run for their money? Fantasy, surely. And yet ...

In its heyday, the Woolworths chain was a great high-street innovation. The first British Woolworths opened in Church Street, Liverpool, in 1909. It was an American import, based on Frank Winfield Woolworth's wildly successful "five and dime" formula. At the time, in this country, it marked the beginning of a retail coup. Formerly, shoppers had been expected to know what they wanted and order from a counter; Woolworths was the pioneer of self-service, with merchandise displayed openly for easy handling and inspection. By the late Seventies, however, Woolworth's was beginning to look like the dodo of the high street, as both technically and style- wise it failed to keep up with competitors. The chain slipped into unprofitability.

Several management changes later, lines such as food and adult clothing have been dropped, as have the least profitable stores, and business is on an upswing again - image refurbishment is one of the last pieces of the jigsaw. Jim Glover, in charge of the company's "City" stores - those facing the fierce competition of busy urban shopping centres - says the process will take time. "If you try and treat an oil tanker like a speedboat it won't react well, however much you might want a speedboat." The new- look stores are open in Doncaster, Hanley near Stoke- on-Trent, and Swindon; at Swindon, open the longest, sales are up by 20 per cent.

Glover is a man with a mission. "We always keep our core customer in mind - everything we do is with this lady and her kids in mind, and here she is," he says affectionately, pulling a large wodge of paper statistics towards him. "If she wouldn't like it, we don't do it." This paragon has children aged under seven, works part-time, usually has a car, wants to improve her lifestyle (or is "with it" in Woolworth-speak) - and the stores should be ringing with purposeful laughter, as she is "busy, positive, in control and has a sense of humour". Discovering her made Jim Glover's job easier at a stroke. "On the entertainment front, we used to worry because we weren't HMV. But our core customer doesn't like shopping in HMV!" he explains triumphantly.

Traditional Woolies is such a familiar old presence in the high street, however, that some shoppers are outraged at the idea of its going up-market. "Woolworths can't change!" protested one such. "If they start moving into ciabatta sandwiches and saucepans and posh jelly beans, where will we all buy our lightbulbs and glue and mint imperials?"

Jim Glover is unruffled. "Once people have seen the new stores, they will understand better. But the main reason that I'm not worried is that it's our customers who are taking us through the changes. We have pulled together groups of customers, both frequent and infrequent Woolworths shoppers, asked them what they wanted - and done it. Some of the managers were shocked when we videoed groups of customers talking about what was wrong with the stores - working this way wouldn't have been allowed before, it would have been seen as a loss of face. It's a mind-set change for the whole organisation - a new way of working. We are allowing Woolworths to come into the 20th century."

But what about the vitals: the string, glue, mint imperials etc? "There have been moves in the past to move Woolworths out of the things it's known for," says Jim Glover, "and these are not things to discard. We won't dream of losing our reputation for variety." So, among the posh biscuits and trendy fruit-smelling soap gift-packs, the spirit of Woolworths lives on, in the shape of light bulbs, curtain hooks, rubber bands and torches. Phew.


Boots: Purports to be a "chemist". Began by selling cheap medicines to the poor over a century ago; now a diversification-gone-mad jack-of- all-trades selling everything from stationery to cookware to gifts. Probably still some aspirin somewhere if you look hard.

Cullens: Used to be charmingly old-fashioned archetypal high-street grocers' store; sadly transformed into glitzy convenience palace where young execs stop off to buy Chardonnay and Kettle Chips and plastic boxes of ready-made salad on their way home.

Harrods: Formerly famous as top people's emporium that guaranteed to deliver anything - provided, of course, that you could pay. Now a hideously crowded tourist "experience" with Japanese information desk, muzak, themed displays, tons of ghastly "souvenirs" etc.

House of Fraser: Has some of the last bastions of Grace Brothers retail style under its wing, however proudly it points to the trendy labels it has been getting in recently.

John Lewis: Started life as a drapers'. Could have come to a sticky end as people started buying rather than making clothes, but by then had diversified into the solid department store we all know and love (though they still stock 400 shades of tapestry wool, 1,000 zips and 2,000 buttons - hooray). "Never knowingly undersold" may not be the zippiest motto, but it's reassuringly down-to-earth.

Littlewoods: First came the football pools, then the catalogue, then the stores. Suffering from a somewhat dowdy, down-at-heel image, the company is currently planning a glorious renaissance under the zappy new name of, erm, Berkertex.