A warm welcome to Alworths! – 28th November 2010
Those of you who know me well will recall both my fondness for Woolworths and sadness on its demise, and ultimate drawn-out closure back at the beginning of 2009.
Although I, like many, didn’t regularly shop there, Woolworths had always been a part of the High Street and it didn’t seem possible that such a fixture could ever be removed from the retail map.
Woolworths failed because of competition from many sides, including the demise of physical music as well as supermarkets encroaching on its sales. With over 800 stores, it was too unwieldy with too large a cost base to react quickly when the market began to turn.
Following the death of Woolworths, various reports circulated regarding possible ‘replacements’ for the store, and eventually it was announced that they would be returning online.
Being ‘online’ is all very well, but it’s hardly the same as shopping in a physical store, and I continued to watch possible plans being put together by Tony Page, a former Woolworths Director, to open at least 50 stores.
This plan was eventually seen through by Andy Latham (another former Woolworths Director) who launched the first Alworths store in Didcot, appropriately on what would have been Woolworths 100th birthday!
Alworths now has seventeen stores and has just opened a branch in Maidenhead which we visited this morning.
So, how does Alworths compare to Woolworths?
We visited the day after the store had opened, and it was understandably busy with shoppers eager to see the new kid in town.
Balloons were being given away in store – excellent cheap advertising for Alworths around the town as well as being popular with children.
At the front of the store there is a wide range of sweets, as well as the famous ‘Pick ‘n’ Mix’ so fondly remembered by fans of Woolworths. Moving through, we passed a small range of CDs and DVDs, including current releases, to reach the large toy section at the rear of the store. Given the time of year, it’s obvious that toys would occupy a significant space within the store and this was borne out, with a fine range displayed including traditional board games, more modern toys and a large array for babies and toddlers.
Alworths has attempted to stick a finger in many pies. There is an aisle for pet care products and a good-sized ‘Home’ section with everything from storage boxes, through soap dishes, to duvets and kettles.
Keeping up where Woolworths was strong, there is a small electrical section as well as kids clothing and a good range of stationery and greetings cards.
At the front of the store was an excellent Christmas selection with everything from lights to tinsel and some unusual Christmas plates.
Overall it was a positive impression with a huge amount of products shoehorned into a relatively small area. My only grievance would be with the arrangement for the tills which effectively means that you need to block the path of shoppers whilst queuing up to pay for your purchases. No doubt this will be looked at once the shop becomes more established.
Alworths compares favourably to Woolworths overall. Their stock is similar (but not too similar!) and they’ve managed to cope without the famous Chad Valley and Ladybird brands which ended up going as part of the sale. The crowds in the store, not only browsing but also buying, were another positive note!
So, does Alworths succeed in its aim of being an effective replacement for Woolworths?
Since Woolworths closed, a number of different shops have chipped away at its former customer base. The recession has seen a plethora of ‘Pound’ type shops take root (with at least four or five within Maidenhead itself! Other business has been taken up by the ever-increasing diversification of supermarkets, who now seem to sell almost everything – even WH Smiths recently started selling Pick ‘n’ Mix!
Perhaps the largest share of the old Woolworths pie has been taken by Wilkinson who have also moved into a number of the premises left vacant by Woolworths – including the former Maidenhead store. They will probably end up being the closest competitor to Alworths.
Alworths somehow needs to squeeze itself in among these bigger players and carve out a niche that it can make its own. In many ways, the stock that it holds is similar to that held by Wilkinson and the challenge will be to set itself apart and entice their customers away.
One way it can succeed is to seek to plug gaps in the stock offered by its competitors (e.g. CDs) and another is by cultivating excellent customer service – something which Andy Latham seems to be keen on judging by this page on their website!
Woolworths failed and lives on only in our memories. Alworths must be careful not to end up in a similar way. So far, they’ve survived their first year in the toughest retail trading for many years, and appear to be going from strength to strength.
I look forward to following the Alworths story as it develops and genuinely wish both Andy Latham and Alworths well in their venture.
I, for one, will be returning to Alworths in Maidenhead and hope that they remain a part of our High Street for many years to come.