No celebrations for Woolworths' century of managed decline

In 1909, when the American owners of Woolworths opened their first British store in Liverpool, the local newspaper, The Liverpool Courier, reported long queues outside, with shelves stripped bare of their goods before the first day of trading.

For "five generations" the company claimed to have put itself at the heart of the high street, pioneering "great value on a range that is always changing". It was a claim that had some merit. The 1960s proved to be halcyon days for Woolworths, which could boast more than 1,000 stores across the UK.

A 1963 Daily Express share-tipping booklet described the company as "truly a giant" in shopping; it was at the time the most prominent retailer on the UK stock market. But the financial turbulence of the Seventies put the brakes on its growth, which was checked by a programme of rationalisation. Since then, Woolworths' course has largely been one of managed decline as the British consumers' love affair with its stores – best known for their pick and mix sweet counter – gradually came to an end.

In 1982 the company was sold to Paternoster Stores, a forerunner to the Kingfisher group. The new management attempted to give greater definition to its offering in four key areas – entertainment, home, children's toys and clothing – and confectionery.

Woolworths continued to struggle through the 1990s, although there looked to be light at the end of the tunnel when Kingfisher revealed plans to merge with the supermarket chain Asda. However, that tie-up was scuppered when Kingfisher was gazumped by the American retail giant Wal-Mart. The failure to win Asda forced Kingfisher to spin off its general merchandise business, resulting in the sale of Superdrug and the flotation of Woolies once again.

A heavyweight management team, chaired by Gerald Corbett, the former boss of Railtrack, and with Trevor Bish-Jones as chief executive, took over the reins of the listed company in August 2001.

Shares floated at just over 30p, initially climbing to more than 50p in the following year. Today they sit at less than 7p after a catalogue of problems at the retailer.

In December 2005, as competition from online rivals such as Amazon became ever more intense, Woolworths issued a profits warning. More would follow in the years to come.

In January this year, the company was forced to shore up its balance sheet, taking a £300m asset-based loan from the Bank of Ireland-owned group Burdale. In June it was revealed that Mr Bish-Jones was leaving, ousted following a review by Woolworths' chairman, Richard North. Steve Johnson, the man behind the Focus DIY chain, will be joining next month, lured in with a £9m-plus incentive package.

He may not have come cheap, but the City's response to his appointment has been lukewarm. "It's hard to understand what Steve Johnson can do that Trevor [Bish-Jones] hasn't already been doing," says Sanjay Vidyarthi, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort.

In the next few months we may find out what Mr Johnson has planned: that depends on Iceland's Malcolm Walker.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all