'Woolworths' set to return to the high street next month

New chain looks to re-employ laid-off staff at pick 'n' mix stores

Virginia Matthews
Thursday 01 October 2009 00:00
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Less than 10 months after Woolworths' final stores closed, the iconic style is set for a high street comeback. Alworths – a new "Son-of-Woolworths" chain selling everything from picture frames to pick 'n' mix confectionery – will open its first batch of stores next month.

The grand opening on 5 November will be 100 years to the day since Frank Winfield Woolworth unveiled his "five-and-dime" concept to Britain with his first shop, in Liverpool. Three former Woolworths sites – Didcot in Oxfordshire, Wokingham in Berkshire and Faversham in Kent are the front- runners for the opening.

But the launch will be soured by the threat of litigation against the new company's managing director by his two former business partners.

Tony Page, a former commercial director at Woolworths, has, with a former UBS banker Gareth Thomas, spent more than 10 months and much of his own money securing up to £10m funding for a rescue plan for Woolworths, but says he is no longer involved in the venture.

It has emerged that the new chain is to be headed instead by Andy Latham, the former head of stores and concessions at Woolworths and, until recently, a close associate of Messrs Page and Thomas. Mr Latham is understood to have exploited wealthy family connections in the Middle East to go it alone.

Mr Page said: "Alworths has been my vision and my passion since early this year, but the timing is no longer right for us to reach critical mass with the speed we would have hoped. We are now looking at other retail opportunities."

He added: "I cannot describe how I feel about Mr Latham; but I can say that Mr Thomas and I will be talking to our lawyers." Mr Latham was unavailable for comment last night.

While the new Alworths name is at best a compromise between old and new – the original Woolworths brand name and logo were sold for £12m several months ago to the Shop Direct Group owned by the Barclay Brothers – in most other respects, Alworths will prove reassuringly familiar.

"We are talking about this being a Woolworths by any other name," said an insider.

A spokesman for Shop Direct, the online retailer, said any developments that appeared to "come close" to the territory occupied by its brand Woolworths.co.uk would be "closely looked at" but added that action would not be taken "for the sake of it".

Although more than 60 per cent of the 807 mothballed Woolworth stores are already re-occupied – predominantly by budget chains such as Iceland and Poundland – there are likely to be up to 50 more Alworths store openings in the South-East of England in the coming year.

A significant number of Alworths staff are likely to be drawn from the ranks of the 30,000 Woolworths employees made redundant when the chain went into administration at the end of last year. Other names suggested for the new stores by former staff included Worthit, The Peoples Store and Britworths.

Some of the most famous retail names of the day have reportedly been associated with the Woolies rescue plan – among them Sir Geoff Mulcahy, a former chief executive of Woolworths' former owner Kingfisher, and Sir Philip Green, the owner of Arcadia.

But the most successful attempt to resurrect the Woolworths image was by the less well-known Claire Robertson, a former manager of the Dorchester branch of Woolworths. She re-opened in the same premises as Wellworths in March and is now planning a second store.

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