Jeremy Warner: Don't blame the economy for the demise of Woolies

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Outlook The slide into administration of the wonder of Woolies is a sad day for the British high street, but also an inevitable one. In their search for culprits, employees should blame not the credit crunch or the economic downturn, though these things sealed the company's fate, but decades of mismanagement which has left Woolies a debt-laden relic of a bygone age. Bizarrely, given the way the Woolworth brand elsewhere in the world has adventurously transmogrified into something else, the British Woolies totally failed to modernise and prepare itself for the advent of more aggressive high- street discounters.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that, it was impossible to know what the stores were for, and by the end they had lost even their core, sink-estate customer base too. The shelves were empty and sometimes the tills were unmanned. One former chief executive once told me his typical customer was low-income single-parent mums. If that was the market, it was hardly likely to sustain an 800- strong chain in an increasingly aspirational world.

Yet for the chief culprit you have to go back to Geoff Mulcahy, the former Kingfisher boss. By the time he demerged Woolies from the Kingfisher parent seven years ago, he had flogged off all the freeholds and saddled the company with ruinously expensive long-term leases. The fledgling never really stood a chance and, in some respects, it is remarkable it lasted as long as it did.

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