"They should have bailed it out, like the banks," said Nazrene Zafar, pausing from snapping up cheap CDs and pick'n'mix sweets to take a family photo of her children in front of Woolworths' dilapidated Stoke Newington store. "We've come to buy a few things, just so we can keep the Woolies labels as mementos. I bring my kids in here every day after school to buy pick'n'mix, so I know all the staff. It's part of our community and I'll miss it so much," Ms Zafar said.
Similar scenes were being played out across the country yesterday, as 200 branches of the famous chain closed their doors for the last time, after administrators failed to find a buyer for the troubled company. Customers turned out in droves in cities such as Nottingham, London and Aberdeen to bid a fond farewell to the store – which has been a stalwart of the British high street for almost 100 years – while some were just happy to snap up last-minute bargains.
Although weeks of big price cuts have reduced stocks dramatically, leaving many stores with empty shelves, shops are still full of people, lured in by 90 per cent-off sales. "I've got £35 worth of stuff for less than a fiver," said Steve Goodey, 45. "It's sad to see it go but great to get things so cheap."
Customers feeling particularly nostalgic could snap up the store's fixtures and fittings, which were also on sale at knock-down prices. "It's devastating really," said one sales assistant, who did not wish to be named. "It's all really emotional right now. The worst part is that we found out what was happening through customers and the TV; management didn't even tell us first."
The chain was taken over by administrators Deloitte last month, when the company's debts mounted to £385m. Despite reports last week that Deloitte was in talks to save 125 stores, a plan that would have involved Woolworths executive Tony Page continuing to have some control of the company, it is now unlikely that any stores will be left open.
"It is still a possibility, but it is not very likely. The administrators are still reviewing interest in the brand, and there are people who are interested in the Woolworths trademark, which might be sold separately from the shops," a Deloitte spokeswoman said.
Barring an eleventh-hour rescue, the chain's remaining 600 stores will close their doors by 5 January, resulting in more than 27,000 people losing their jobs. The first Woolworths store opened in Liverpool in 1909. The high street store is the most high-profile casualty of the credit crunch which has seen Whittards of Chelsea, music store Zavvi and the homeware shop MFI all go into administration.
"Around a dozen retailers went into administration in 2008, and there will certainly be more who'll face administration next year," said Richard Dodd, spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium (BRC). "I don't think we will see a retail bloodbath, with the biggest chains going down, but the smaller chains will undoubtedly be at risk. Retail employs three million people in the UK – more than manufacturing – so the Government should treat the sector with the same respect."
With many shops reporting record sales, the scenes on British shopping streets around the UK this weekend belie the true state of the economy. Selfridges took almost £1m in just one hour on Boxing Day at shops around the country – the most lucrative 60 minutes in the shop's 100-year history – while John Lewis also announced record sales. But the huge discounts offered on many goods have reduced retailers' profit margins.
Medium and small businesses are likely to be hit hardest in the coming months. The Federation of Small Businesses predicts that more than 2,000 small businesses will close in 2009.
Additional reporting by Kaarina Miles and Oliver LaughlandReuse content