Monday, January 5, 2009

A Retail Icon Disappears. Will More Follow?

Perhaps you were pre-occupied with your own holiday activities and didn’t hear or read about it, but news broke just before Christmas that another link with retail history was about to be severed—the 807 Woolworths stores in the United Kingdom were to be shuttered by Jan. 5, ending 100 years of service to the British public.

There’s very little reason to be anything but nostalgic about this turn of events. Actually, that phrase, “turn of event,” implies a sudden reversal of fortune. That was hardly the case in the United Kingdom. The variety store chain’s departure from the retail scene just took longer than it did in the United States (1997).

“Let’s be clear about the demise of Woolworths. It was not caused by (prime minister) Gordon Brown, or the credit crunch,” Julian Finch of The Guardian wrote in mid-December. “It was caused by failing to attract enough shoppers to spend money. It was the result of being a horrible place to shop, which offered nothing that wasn’t cheaper or better elsewhere.”

In the coming weeks and months we no doubt will learn of many American retailers that no longer could keep their doors open during the current economic crisis. Some will succumb because they too were “horrible places to shop.” Others will fail because they too willingly believed that good times last forever and it was financially acceptable to leverage their future beyond reason in their pursuit of growth. Still others will find out that over-storing does in fact exist when the consumer reins in spending and that only those stores that differentiate themselves can survive such times.

We’ll all shed a tear, or at least get misty eyed, for the departed. Most, however, will not have had the flavorful history of Woolies.

—Murray Forseter

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