Virtual Woolworths proves early online hit

Nearly 100,000 shoppers logged on to the new site in its first few hours after launch today as the brand made its online comeback.

The site went live with more than half a million products, bringing back the much-loved pic 'n' mix sweets and Ladybird children's clothing.

The launch sees the return of the Woolworths brand more than six months after the high street chain collapsed into administration amid plunging sales and mounting debts.

New owner Shop Direct, which bought the brand name in February, has kept the recognisable red logo and many of the products Woolies was best known for - including CDs, DVDs, children's party and fancy dress, technology, toys and even pic 'n' mix.

Bosses at Shop Direct, which also owns Littlewoods Direct, said the Ladybird clothing range had already proved a best seller as the most popular product range bought so far since launch.

Shop Direct is hoping the new virtual reincarnation of Woolies will appeal to the family market and tap into the burgeoning trend to shop online.

As well as stocking most of the goods seen in the former stores, Shop Direct is also adding products that were too big to sell in-store, such as garden furniture and family-sized swimming pools.

Its range, which is set to be expanded further by the end of the year, offers far more than the 8,000 average products stocked in former stores.

But kettles and ironing boards are out after the new owner decided not to sell DIY or household goods.

Stock was chosen based largely on feedback from many of the one million customers and loyal Woolies fans that have already contacted the group.

It has some 8,000 online followers through Twitter and Facebook, according to the firm.

Retail experts today said the brand history may help stand out in the crowded retail marketplace and help it succeed where the high street chain failed.

"Without the high street costs and rent, the brand name should have some legs," said Nick Bubb, a retail analyst at Pali International.

But he added it was a tough market to launch into: "It could do reasonably well, but I don't think it will make anybody's fortune."

Analysts at Singer Capital Markets said it was starting on the front foot under the "capable umbrella" of the Shop Direct group, however they also cautioned it would take time to build up significant volume of sales.

Shop Direct said it had spent "several millions of pounds" bringing Woolworths back.

The site is initially split into three areas - party, entertainment and the main shop - with three separate check-outs, although bosses are aiming to integrate them into one by the autumn.

Mark Newton-Jones, Shop Direct chief executive, said: "We've been talking to families across the country and have responded with a site that delivers the best of what they loved about Woolies.

"Families wanted us to bring back Woolies as soon as possible, so that's what we've done."

The site's high street predecessor was forced into administration at the end of November just after the brand's 99th birthday.

Efforts to rescue the business failed, with the loss of 27,000 jobs.

Administrators launched a closing-down sale in December and the last of the 807 stores closed in January.

The new brand owner, Shop Direct, has a range of well-known catalogue brands within its portfolio, also including Kays and Marshall Ward.

It employs around 10,500 people and has about five million customers.

Shop Direct is owned by Sir David and Frederick Barclay, whose other interests include the Telegraph newspaper group.

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