Upmarket Pinner trades ex-Woolies pound shop for WHSmith – but not everyone’s happy
Many thanks to Bryan Roberts from Kantar Retail iQ, who let me know via Twitter that the old Woolworths in Pinner, north west London, has recently reopened as a branch of WHSmith.
Regular readers may recall that I visited Pinner nearly a year ago, when the old Woolies premises in Bridge Street were then occupied by Poundstar. Just as Poundstar made do with the existing Woolworths shopfront, it looks like WHSmith has similarly done little more – at least on the outside – than add its own signage to the current fascia.
With WHSmith’s opening, Pinner’s joins the growing number of ex-Woolies locations that are already on to their second occupant since the collapse of Woolworths in 2008. In some places – such as Warrington – this is simply the result of the original post-Woolies occupant going out of business, and another retailer coming in to fill the void.
Elsewhere, however, there are some interesting examples of discount retailers in ex-Woolies premises, more than likely on short-term leases, being replaced by (relatively) more upmarket or better-known names. Waitrose taking over the Alworths site in Amersham is an obvious example, as is Denmark Hill’s 99p Stores being replaced by Peacocks.
Is it just coincidence or local circumstances? An illustration of certain retailers’ relative success or evolving property requirements? Or perhaps a sign of confidence in the retail property market as big names target locations that they may have passed by a couple of years earlier? Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that Pinner was reasonably quiet on the Friday morning when I visited last year, so hopefully WHSmith’s arrival provides a welcome boost to footfall in a retail centre that, arguably, was never the most obvious location for a pound shop.
One of Pinner’s charms is that it manages to combine a lovely historic centre with a reasonably strong retail and leisure offer. I knew next to nothing about the place before stepping off the train last year, but I was really impressed by the gorgeous High Street, lined with timber-framed buildings housing bars and independent shops.
Tucked behind the High Street, there’s also an M&S Simply Food and a good-sized Sainsbury’s, both accessed via discreet archways and reasonably well integrated with the rest of the shopping centre.
My general view is that places like Pinner benefit from having a healthy mix of big-name stores and interesting independents, allowing shoppers to meet most of their everyday needs while maintaining a retail centre that is distinctive and characterful.
Of course, not everyone subscribes to that view. Take those superstores away, and the romantic vision is that shoppers will revert to old-fashioned shopping habits, providing an automatic boost for the local butcher and greengrocer. Here in the North East, however, the example of Wallsend – a town that has been without its main supermarket for the last two years – reminds us that shoppers are just as capable of taking their business to the nearest Morrisons or Tesco down the road.
With this in mind, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read that WHSmith’s arrival in Pinner has apparently provoked a “backlash” from local independent shopkeepers. Of course, local newspapers thrive on this kind of drama, and we shouldn’t believe everything we read in them. However, the “local indies object to big-name newcomer” story is wearily familiar, and often based on the flimsiest of premises.
The article in the Harrow Observer last month reported that “WHSmith is facing a backlash from independent traders in Pinner who fear the stationery giant will steal their customers”, and revealed that “a group of shops selling cards, stationery, books and printing services have written a joint letter to WHSmith bosses over their fears that independent shops like theirs will be undercut.”
On several counts this argument is bizarre. It ignores the fact that some of WHSmith’s ranges – such as stationery and newspapers – are items that Woolworths used to sell from that site without anyone seemingly complaining. Equally, anyone who’s recently been to a branch of Smith’s will recognise that its upmarket (or, some might say, overpriced) cards compete more with Paperchase or Clinton’s than with Card Factory or local independents.
What I find most depressing about this kind of article, however, is the apparent complacency and sense of blame among some indie retailers – the view that “we’ve been here forever, and how dare the big boys come in, undercut us, and nick our customers” – and the implication that everything revolves around price. What about celebrating independents’ potential to offer superlative customer service? Providing a friendly, personal touch and superb specialist knowledge that the big chains simply can’t match?
In the modern world of retailing, no retail business has – or should have – a God-given right to thrive. Success needs to be earnt. Unfortunately, alongside all the brilliant and innovative independent retailers out there, there are still too many that haven’t invested enough in brightening up dismal store interiors, in showcasing product effectively, or in offering more-than-perfunctory customer service. In short, these are shops that have coasted along, reliant on a relatively captive audience, and whose limitations are exposed when a big chain opens up down the road.
Instead of grumbling, Pinner’s indie retailers should therefore be seizing upon the opportunity afforded by WHSmith’s arrival.
Celebrate the fact that a major name has made an investment in your retail centre, bringing a vacated shop unit back into use.
Assuming local footfall increases, tap into this. Bring more customers into your own shop by offering the products that they want, wrapped up with a sense of theatre and top-notch customer service that makes people feel good and want to come back.
But, above all, don’t ask them at the till if they’d like to buy some cheap chocolate.