Vision of FW Woolworth gathers dust on a shelf in the East End

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WHEN the original Woolworth store opened in Liverpool in 1909, it was mobbed by 60,000 customers in two days. The "Five and Dime" store format imported from the US was the first in Britain to let customers browse and inspect goods on shelves inste ad of asking for items across a counter.

The scene at the Poplar branch of Woolworth in London's East End last week belied that history of innovation. The crowds have been replaced by a handful of shoppers, mostly elderly, and the marketing strategy looks as if it has not been sharpened in decades.

The stock, what little there was, hung from battered peg boards or sat on beaten, sometimes rusty shelves. A thin layer of dust coated many items. Even before Christmas, the toy department did not carry Power Rangers, the hottest seller of the season. The newest - and busiest - section was the National Lottery ticket counter.

Most of the customers coming out on to Vesey Path said they rarely shopped at Woolworths. "It's the first time I've been in there in ages," said one man. Another, leaving empty-handed, said the last thing he bought there was a tin of paint - six months ago.

"They used to sell more things - lampshades and kitchen goods," said Kathleen Harries, a retired printer. "Mostly I just buy tights and sweets there now."

Even the man collecting for charity outside the doors said it was a poor location.

The contrast with Steves Best Sellers, two doors down, could not be sharper. An independent selling many of the same categories as Woolworths, Steves has three times the stock and a third of the staff. Its goods are piled to the ceiling, while the Woolworth racks extend to chest height. "I don't know how they manage to make any money at all," said Roger Penn, the manager of Steves. "You walk through there, and it's all open spaces. Here, where there's a gap there's stock. If I were running Woolworths, I'd fill it up with goods and bang them out.''

Alan Temperley, the assistant manager at the Woolworth store, defended the low stock-to-floor space ratio, saying his customers did not like feeling as if piles of stock could come crashing down on top of them. Wide aisles also made it comfortable for people in wheelchairs and mothers with pushchairs. The stock, he claimed, was more up-market than Steves. But he admitted the store had not had a facelift for about 12 years, since the old floors were removed.

But the chain has its die-hard supporters. "I love Woolworths," said Eileen Waters, a housewife. "The staff are quite friendly, and I've always been 100 per cent satisfied. They've got a sale on now, and they're practically giving things away,'' she sai d , a look of puzzlement crossing her face. "I don't know why they're not busy."