Swindon’s former Woolworths store – past, present and an uncertain future
If you saw my earlier post about the shiny new BHS in Swindon, you might be wondering what happened to the retailer during the 18-month period that its old store was being redeveloped. Well, rather conveniently, there was an empty unit in nearby Regent Street where it was able to open a temporary store: the site of Swindon’s former Woolworths.
At the time of Woolies’ collapse in 2008, the Swindon store (store #38) was one of the longest established in the country. It opened at 23-25 Regent Street on 12 September 1914 – almost 97 years to the day before my visit – and underwent a series of extensions and redevelopments in 1936, 1973, 1980 and 1995.
Sadly, the rather functional present-day frontage bears no resemblance to the more elegant, cinema-style façade that existed previously – similar to the one still found at Chester-le-Street. However, the attractive turreted Next building (in the middle of both shots, above and below) ensures that there is at least some visual link between the 1960s and present-day views along the street.
Now that BHS’s new store is open, I’d rather expected to find the former Woolworths store vacated again. However, BHS looks to be hanging on to the space for the moment, badging it as a BHS Furniture Clearance Outlet.
When you visit Swindon, that word – outlet – seems to assail you at every turn, with both positive and negative consequences for the town. In the Swindon Designer Outlet, owned by McArthur Glen, the town has one of the busiest and best outlet shopping centres in the country, housing 120 stores in the Grade II-listed Great Western Railway Works – a truly fantastic series of spaces.
With outlet stores from big names such as John Lewis, Next and M&S, as well as designer brands like Aquascutum, Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger, there’s little wonder that the centre was packed with shoppers when I visited. Indeed, according to CACI Retail Footprint data, the outlet centre alone generates £160m of annual expenditure – equivalent to Tamworth’s vast Ventura Retail Park.
However, while bringing shoppers and their spend into Swindon, the Designer Outlet is perhaps just a little too far away from the town centre – a good 10 minutes’ walk – to have much of a positive knock-on effect. On the contrary, there are bound to be some names whose presence at the Designer Outlet rules them out of taking space in the town centre proper.
Once in the town centre, the outlet theme continues, somewhat controversially. In 2008, Swindon’s established House of Fraser store was rebadged as a House of Fraser Outlet, featuring end-of-the-line branded stock from other stores in the chain. While better than losing House of Fraser completely, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a retrograde step.
Looking around the store on Sunday, it felt rather like a more upmarket TJ Hughes, with a slight ‘jumble sale’ feel and the sense that it’s no longer really a proper department store. For that, shoppers must go along the street to Debenhams, which itself makes a fairly unglamorous impression from the outside.
Swindon might have a shiny John Lewis at Home on its outskirts, and the country’s most modern BHS in its centre, but I have to confess to being slightly underwhelmed by the town centre – both in terms of its retail offer and the overall quality of the public realm.
Perhaps my expectations were too high? After all, with annual retail expenditure (according to CACI) of £350m, Swindon town centre is barely a third of the size of nearby Bristol or Reading (each £1.2bn), and ranks below both Darlington (£360m) and Middlesbrough (£430m) in the North East. In my previous post, I cited John Ryan’s assertion that the new BHS was “without doubt the best shop in Swindon”, and it’s hard to really argue with that claim.
So, against this mixed backdrop, what might the future hold for Swindon’s former Woolworths site once BHS finally moves on? Usefully, the town’s growth and regeneration company, Forward Swindon, commissioned a ‘Town Centre Healthcheck’ from GVA Grimley in May last year, which reported in November.
Drawing from the FOCUS real estate database, this report found that a relatively small number of retailers (30) had a requirement for space in Swindon, particularly in comparison to other large centres in the south, such as Oxford, Reading and Bristol. Of these, just two – Asda Living and the now-much-reduced TJ Hughes – had a requirement for more than 15,000 sq ft of retail space.
Of course, Swindon’s recent BHS development – and similar retail schemes elsewhere – remind us that if developers build the right quality of space in the right locations, retailers will often find a requirement. As Swindon looks forward, I can’t help thinking that the Woolworths site might need another redevelopment of its own if it’s to have a sustainable and long-term future as prime retail space.