Woolworths: Opening the shutters

A former Woolworths executive aims to plug the gap in our high streets left by the collapse of the chain this year, reports Virginia Matthews

Using your own initials as the basis of a new high street brand may sound like the ultimate in retail megalomania. But for Andy Latham – who aims to plug the gap left by Woolworths with his new Alworths chain, which launches next month in Didcot, Oxfordshire – the choice of brand name is more about commercial confidence than personal vanity.

"While our new retail formula will certainly contain many of the best elements of the Woolworths business, particularly the fact that it offers one-stop, variety retailing on the high street, this is in effect a brand new business on a blank sheet of paper," he says.

"That fact that I am so keen to put my own personal stamp on it, as well as face the consequences should it fail, must tell you that I have absolutely no doubt that the gap left by Woolworths has yet to be filled; not by a 'son-of' exactly, but by a new brand in its own right."

On paper at least, Mr Latham's bullishness – and his backing of a brand new corporate logo that boldly replaces Woolworths' red with Alworths' blue – looks well-placed.

Aided by a close-knit circle of associates and a fairly bottomless pit of money from a family connection in the Middle East, the business model of this ex-Woolworths head of stores and concessions development rests on a small-is-beautiful approach.

He believes that by operating a maximum of 100 outlets, predominantly in market towns and secondary retail sites, and by offering a limited choice, though of an extensive range of items, Alworths can fairly effortlessly build a £30m annual turnover by 2011.

"I worked at Woolworths for over 25 years and I know what works and what doesn't," he says. "Woolworths has left a big gap in peoples' high streets and in many peoples' lives, but it wasn't perfect and we aim to learn from its mistakes."

"We won't create a massive empire that can't react quickly to changing market conditions and changing consumer habits and we won't make the mistake of becoming so large that we become uniform in terms of stock and sluggish in terms of our corporate and financial procedures."

While the product range will closely echo that of Woolworths, there will be noticeably less reliance on home entertainment and far more on haberdashery, housewares and pet products. In contrast to Woolies, there will also be some local variation in the lines stocked.

While one new consumer trend that will not be explored is online shopping, Mr Latham says this will not be a problem for the present. "We want to be the sort of high street brand that kids come to spend their pocket money in and that parents and grandparents flock to when they want to buy Christmas presents for the children in the family. We are not interested in going online at this stage."

Given that Woolworths.co.uk is now a brand name fiercely protected by the Barclay brothers-owned Shop Direct Group, staying offline is probably a very wise move. But there are two other elements of the Woolworths mix – Chad Valley Toys, sold to Home Retail Group, and Ladybird children's clothing, acquired by Shop Direct – that also remain closed to Alworths as it gears up for its first Christmas.

"We very much hope to develop a top-quality, own-label Alworths toys brand nine or 10 months down the track, and are already talking to key suppliers about other product categories where we think a good in-house brand would make sense for us. But for the present, we will stock a whole range of gift items produced by very familiar household names," says Mr Latham.

In Didcot, where the re-opening of the long-shuttered Woolworths site is attracting much local interest, goodwill towards the defunct retailer's legacy is still strong.

Alison Adams, the development manager at the local lobbying organisation Didcot First, says: "Local people have felt the loss of Woolies very keenly, and, although many other chains have entered the town since it shut up shop, there is still a lot of affection for the store."

"People have very much missed buying anything from cotton reels to shoe laces under the same high street roof, and I have no doubt the majority of the town will give this new company a fair chance."

There have been suggestions that, after 10 months, the resurrection of Woolworths, albeit under another name, is at best irrelevant. But Mr Latham rejects any suggestion that many shoppers, however emotional at the time of the collapse, have simply moved on.

"We have done a mammoth amount of research and have been told repeatedly that variety retailing is still hugely popular."

"We have done a good job in keeping our business secret until now, but, now our plans are public, we will begin establishing the new name and capitalising on all the interest."

"This is the perfect time to launch our new brand and to help regenerate the high street at the same time."

Timeline: The wonder of Woolies

*1879: Frank Woolworth opens The Great Five Cent Store in New York, selling items such as napkins, thimbles, harmonicas, baby bibs and pencils.

*1909: First UK store opens in Liverpool, selling toys, confectionery and stationery with a price-cap of sixpence.

*1920s: Stores open at a rate of one every 17 days in the UK.

*1982: Woolworths sells UK subsidiary to the British consortium Paternoster (which later becomes Kingfisher).

*2001: Demerges from Kingfisher.

*November 2008: Woolworths UK goes into administration owing £385m.

*January 2009: Final stores close.

*March 2009: Former Woolworths store manager Claire Robertson opens Wellworths in Dorchester.

*June 2009: Shop Direct launches Woolworths.co.uk. The site receives 100,000 hits in its first few hours.

*November 2009: Alworths set to open, 100 years after Britain's first Woolworths

Hamish Smith

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