Swindon’s former Woolworths store – past, present and an uncertain future

Former Woolworths (now temporary BHS), Swindon (11 Sep 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

Former Woolworths (now temporary BHS), Swindon (11 Sep 2011)

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.

Old postcard of Woolworths in Swindon, c.1960

Old postcard of Woolworths in Swindon, c.1960

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.

A similar view along Regent Street today (11 Sep 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

A similar view along Regent Street today (11 Sep 2011)

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.

Swindon Designer Outlet (11 Sep 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

Swindon Designer Outlet (11 Sep 2011)

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.

Swindon Designer Outlet (11 Sep 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

Swindon Designer Outlet (11 Sep 2011)

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.

House of Fraser Outlet, Swindon (11 Sep 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

House of Fraser Outlet, Swindon (11 Sep 2011)

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.

Debenhams, Swindon (11 Sep 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

Debenhams, Swindon (11 Sep 2011)

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.

11 Responses to “Swindon’s former Woolworths store – past, present and an uncertain future”

  1. The Retail Database said:

    Sep 16, 11 at 11:48

    Swindon will continue to be chipped away at by other locations that have the capacity to attract both consumers and retailers. Maybe it will have to reinvent itself as a smaller, convenience location that has shops and services for the day to day.

  2. Helen Catterall said:

    Sep 19, 11 at 12:55

    The sudden exit of Woolworths from our high streets left a big hole, but thankfully across the country other retailers have been stepping in to take advantage of prime locations, probably with decent levels of rent.

  3. Steve Hack said:

    Sep 19, 11 at 20:04

    I agree about the town centre being underwhelming. There’s all the usual suspects to choose from but it’s not a very inspiring place to shop!

    I also noticed that the Sainsburys in the Brunel Plaza still had signage from at least 20 years ago, another example of where certain stores are forgotten when a rebranding exercise takes place.

  4. Graham Soult said:

    Sep 19, 11 at 20:23

    Yes, I spotted that! Quite a rare find these days

  5. Lee Sartin said:

    Feb 21, 12 at 19:15

    Hi, I realise these posts are relatively old in terms of how fast the retail world moves on, but from living in Swindon myself, there seems to be an update on the former Woolworths store on Regent Street. Poundworld (Discount UK), however similar to the other discount retailers on the high street, is opening in the former Woolworths store on Friday 24th Feb.

    Does Swindon need another ‘pound shop’ following the likes of 99p stores and poundland in the stown centre?…. Maybe not, but there must be a market for this type of store in Swindon at this present time – they definitely have a lot of floor space to play with! At least its another empty shop unit filled, although we are starting to lose the higher quality store throughout many high streets.

  6. Graham Soult said:

    Feb 21, 12 at 20:57

    Discount UK is pretty smart – if you search through my old blogs you’ll see that the ex-Woolworths up here in Newcastle and Middlesbrough are now Discount UK as well, and seem to be doing OK!

  7. Lee Sartin said:

    Feb 22, 12 at 09:53

    I will have a look at the blogs. Thant sounds like good news then! The store left such a large void at that end of Regent Street so it will be a welcome site to see something there. The fact that the store will be offering products similar to Woolworths is great as well.

  8. Graham Soult said:

    Feb 22, 12 at 10:09

    And I forgot to say thanks for your updates, Lee! I’ll have to go and take another look next time I’m in Swindon :)

  9. Lee Sartin said:

    Feb 22, 12 at 10:59

    Thanks, not a problem. I can keep coming back to look at this site now i’ve found it!

    I forgot to mention, it looks like Poundworld and Discount UK will be offering 2 stores under 1 roof in Swindon. Not sure if this has been done elsewhere, but I did think there would be a lot of floor space to use up :)

    Heres a local news link if you’re interested. Thanks again.


  10. Graham Soult said:

    Feb 22, 12 at 11:26

    Excellent, thanks Lee! I’ve dug out a bit more information, so I’ll do a quick blog on this later.

  11. Lee Sartin said:

    May 22, 13 at 21:28

    Going back to previous comments from last year Graham, I forgot to mention that the other half of the old woolies unit in Swindon is now home to a new Peacocks store. From the few Peacocks stores that were saved, the Swindon branch was relocated from The Parade to Regent Street where it now stands today with a nice new shop fit. I think in terms of floor space its about the same but I guess they have negotiated better terms on their lease for a better location in the town centre. Here are some pictures:


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