One day – ten former Woolies – one tired blogger
Back in September, you might recall me trumpeting the fact that I’d visited six old Woolworths in a day. Today, however, I must confess to visiting (and photographing) ten in one day – or eleven if you count the extra one that I passed on the bus but was too tired to stop at. Needless to say, you will surely be expecting me to run through them all, so here goes…
First up is Gateshead, which – inevitably – still looks much the same as it did when I last blogged about it. There could be room for a B&M Bargains or 99p Stores in Gateshead town centre, but it’s difficult to see any retailers being attracted at the moment, given that the High Street remains a demolition site, and there’s still little indication of when work will start on the much-heralded Trinity Square scheme.
A few stops along the Metro, and the former Woolies in Jarrow is also still empty. I’d never been to Jarrow town centre before, but was quite impressed with the town’s Viking Centre – originally built as Britain’s first Arndale Centre in 1961, but evidently much revamped since then. It’s well anchored by several large big-name stores (Peacocks, New Look, Wilkinson, Morrisons), was busy with shoppers, and appeared to have hardly any voids apart from the former Woolies site.
A few more Metro stops along, and South Shields is one of those slightly curious cases of a former Woolworths that has been carved into two, with part of it occupied and the rest still empty. I do always wonder about the wisdom of splitting large shop units, given that many towns have plenty of smaller premises available to let, but can’t always offer the large units that some of the highest profile retailers require. Still, one must assume that the building’s landlords know what they’re doing.
As things stand, a chunk of the building is occupied by Poundland, while the rest is apparently ‘to let’. Back in September, the Shields Gazette claimed that the remaining half was to be occupied by Primark, which always struck me as rather strange - surely if Primark was coming, it would have wanted the whole building, given that its stores are becoming increasingly huge. Certainly, I’m yet to see or hear anything to corroborate the Gazette’s claim – which is a shame, as I’m sure a Primark would be positive for South Shields town centre.
Hopping over the Tyne on the Shields Ferry to North Shields, and the former Woolworths there is something a little different – a Cramlington Textiles Superstore. I was quite impressed with this shop, which sells DIY ranges, such as paint and wallpaper, alongside a vast array of curtains, cushions and bedding. The interior of the store has not had a lot done to it – I noted the Woolworths ‘Thank you for shopping with us’ signs still in place above the exits – but it’s tidy and well laid out, with fixtures and fittings that show off the product range to good effect.
Down the road in Wallsend, the new occupant of the old Woolworths store – Well Worth It – has garnered some regional media attention for its Woolworths-style format (and name – perhaps another case for the Shop Direct lawyers?), complete with the obligatory pick and mix. Well Worth It is part of the Blyth-based North East Convenience Stores empire, and this is reflected in the store having a significant grocery offer that occupies perhaps half the floorspace. Other than that, there seemed to be some good offers in areas such as homewares and toys, and there were certainly a decent number of people looking around.
Overall, however, I’m slightly ambivalent about these types of discount variety stores, and I didn’t really see anything that makes Well Worth It stand out from B&M Bargains, 99p Stores and the like. On the other hand, you could argue that if Well Worth It enjoys even a fraction of those retailers’ recent success, being distinctive will barely matter.
Talking about B&M Bargains brings us nicely onto the next stop in my journey, at Whitley Bay. The B&M store there has only been open a few weeks, and it was nice to see the building full of stock as well as people – all a bit of a change from my last visit, on Boxing Day 2008, when the then Woolworths store had just four days to go and very little left to sell. As is customary with B&M, the shop has had only a minimal makeover, inside or out – note the familiar shopfront with its light blue Woolies door handles – but it’s hard to knock a formula that is clearly working well.
Up the coast a few miles and my next stop was Blyth, in Northumberland – another place I’d never visited before. The former Woolies there – now a PerfectHome shop – occupies a really prominent location in the surprisingly attractive market square, directly opposite the large Westgate Department Store. The new store looked very appealing, and had evidently had care lavished on both the frontage and the interior.
I remain unconvinced, however, about the usefulness of pay-weekly stores – such as PerfectHome or BrightHouse – as footfall drivers within town centres, given the types of products that they sell and the quite specific demographic that they target. It was difficult to judge today, given that Blyth town centre as a whole seemed very quiet, probably at least in part due to the terrible weather.
A few miles away in Ashington, the handsome former Woolworths building has again been divided into two, with Heron Foods occupying half, and the other part currently empty.
I didn’t go in, as it’s a little difficult to pop into a freezer centre just to browse. Undoubtedly though, Heron Foods, just like B&M Bargains, has really capitalised on the demise of Woolworths to rapidly expand its presence in a way that wouldn’t ordinarily have been possible.
On to Morpeth, and though I’ve featured the town’s former Woolworths – now Iceland – before, I wasn’t going to let that stop me capturing an up-to-date photo while I was there. Honourable mention must also go to the old Woolies in Gosforth – previously featured here – which I passed on the bus on the way home, and noted was now open (and busy) as The Co-operative Food.
We end the day almost as we started: back on Tyneside, this time in Newcastle, with a former Woolies that is still empty and, as I blogged before, seems unlikely to see any action soon. Over the course of the day, however, it was heartening to see so many former Woolworths shops that have been brought back into use – in whole or in part – even if none of them quite manage to capture that elusive ‘Wonder of Woolies’.