Shoppers flock to value stores

Two former Woolworths directors predict good times ahead for the independent high-street sector, reports Virginia Matthews

There may be fierce infighting and even the threat of court battles between the two former Woolworths directors vying for the defunct retailer’s crown this Christmas. But when it comes to predicting a rosy future for the independent high street retailing sector, Andy Latham, whose Alworths chain opens for business in Didcot, Oxfordshire next month, and Tony Page, former commercial director at Woolworths and until recently Latham’s partner, are consulting the same crystal ball.

“The British appetite for one-stop, value shopping in town centres has in noway diminished since Woolworths went into receivership last year. While everyone from the catalogue shops to the supermarkets have attempted to fill the gap, neither the style of shopping nor the convenience of location we had at Woolies have so far been replicated in any meaningful way,” says Latham. Page adds: “Although Woolworths had weaknesses, particularly the sheer number and uniformity of stores and the heavy reliance on home entertainment, I have no doubt a tighter and leaner organisation more able to adapt to changing consumer demand than the old Woolies was, would thrive in the current market conditions.”

Indeed, for the string of low-cost retailers parked in previously mothballed Woolworths sites – among them Poundland and the 170-store chain Home Bargains – independence and value in the high street is proving an irresistible combination to consumers hunting out a bargain. Retail analysts may bicker over whether the outbreak of cheapo retailing can last beyond this recession, but one well-established cost-conscious business is already producing healthy profits out of one-stop shopping.

Better known to the Midlands than to London and the South-east, the family-owned, independent retailer Wilkinson – which adopted pick ’n’ mix long before the demise of Woolworths – has been quick to capitalise on the collapse of its nearest rival. Wilkinson – or Wilko, as it is affectionately known – last year recorded its highest ever annual sales of £1.45bn as 224 million shoppers descended on the chain’s 321 shops in the East Midlands, Scotland and, more recently, Walton-on-Thames. Selling a familiar mix of home and kitchenware, lighting, gardening and DIY, as well as confectionery, stationery and now party wear and snacks, the chain hopes to grow to 500 stores by 2012 – with many of the new openings rising from the ashes of shuttered Woolies stores.

“We may only be 80 years old to their 100, but we are, in effect, Woolworths as it used to be in terms of concentrating on our core strengths and keeping to a manageable size,” says a spokesman. “While we have no plans to reach the 800-or-so store mark, as Woolworths did, we believe there is room for a fairly large independent chain which, having started out provincial, is now looking to go national and even international.”

If Wilko has at least two key advantages over Alworths in its quest to exploit the appeal of variety retailing – not only is it already well-established in the high street, it also has a thriving online business – there could, arguably, be a stronger claim to the Woolworths throne from distant relatives in both Stornoway and Dorset. At the former Woolworths store in Dorchester – reopened in March under the new brand name Wellworths – founder and former Woolies store manager Claire Robertson may not yet be operating on the grand scale envisaged by either Wilko or Alworths, but her place in independent retailing history is assured.

In common with the backers of WeeW in Stornoway, the rebranded Woolworths that continues, under one roof, to offer light bulbs, frying pans, knitting needles and knickers to the islanders of Lewis, Robertson’s philosophy rests on pure local need rather than retail empire-building. “When Woolies closed, I lost count of the number of times I was asked where people could buy stick-on soles, cotton reels or party toys and I realised the appeal of Woolworths was as much about local need as it was about nostalgia for the familiarity of the brand. Although it wasn’t on my original list, I have brought back home entertainment by popular demand and will continue to ask shoppers what they want, and where possible seek to stock it, as time goes on.”

Now on target for a year-one turnover of £1.8m, Robertson isn’t much interested in high finance and secret business deals with men in suits, but she is interested in independent retailing with a local twist. “The biggest difference between us and Woolworths is we are committed to reflecting the unique demographics and character of each local area, rather than imposing an identical menu of products on every store.”

Dorchester already stocks locally produced biscuits, confectionery and stationery alongside more wellknown wholesale items, and will continue to buy in anything “that can’t easily be bought elsewhere locally.” Although Wellworths is founded on value retailing principles, however, Robertson distances her brand from that of new operators such as 99p Stores. “Woolworths was always keen to offer a number of different price points for consumers, and we are continuing that tradition with Wellworths. Many of our lines have a £10 and £5 option as well as a £1 price point and, given some of our stock retails at £150 ormore, I do not see we can be classed as a truly low-cost retailer even if we continue to be a value brand.”

While Robertson hopes, given a good Christmas in Dorset, to reopen two or three more stores next year, Wellworths is not yet in major expansionist mood. “The ex-Woolworths guys have come to me and we have discussed joining forces, but Wellworths is my baby and it’s going pretty well. I have no intention of giving up control of this business to them or anybody else.”

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40000: SThree: As a Recruitment Consultant, y...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Quantitative Risk Manager

Up to £80000: Saxton Leigh: My client, a large commodities broker, is looking ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits