As Wellworths becomes Wellchester, Claire Robertson talks tweaking and expansion
The story is well known: former Woolworths store manager Claire Robertson was hailed as a heroine of the downturn when she reopened her old shop as Wellworths, gave most of the staff their jobs back, and became a TV documentary star and chum of radio DJ Chris Evans. In turn, Claire’s actions paved the way for other ‘sons of Woolies’ to be born – including Smallworths in Selsdon, Wee W in Stornaway, and the shortlived Alworths chain – while Chelmsford’s Faith girls were inspired to (briefly) reincarnate their collapsed store as Hope.
Two-and-a-half years later, Wellworths remains a fixture on Dorchester’s South Street, though today (16 September) marks the start of a new chapter as it rebrands itself to Wellchester.
As I reported back in November, the move was necessitated by Shop Direct – owner of the Woolworths trademark since the chain’s collapse – who argued that the Wellworths brand was too similar to its own, and insisted that Claire curtail any expansion plans if she wished to retain the use of the name. Rather than face this limitation, the new Wellchester brand was born – celebrating the place where the business started, while still ensuring that it can be known as Wellies for short.
A week before the relaunch, I finally visited (the then) Wellworths to meet Claire and to take a guided tour around her store. Well used to dealing with the media by now, Claire is as delightful and professional as you’d expect, and her passion – for her staff, for her store, for Dorchester, and for retail in general – comes across strongly. I also detected a steely determination and a sense of not taking any nonsense – surely a valuable combination of assets for anyone seeking to build a fledgling retail business into a long-term success.
Almost since Wellworths was first launched, the media has speculated about possible expansion for the business. Claire confirmed to me that she is on the lookout for additional sites in the Dorset area, and has one or two locations in mind, though nothing suitable has become available as yet. It’s clear, however, that making the Dorchester store as successful as possible – and avoiding an Alworths-style overexpansion – remains Claire’s focus.
The store itself is an interesting mix of the old and new. On the shopfloor, the wooden flooring, ex-Woolies shelving and core product categories – such as toys, stationery, homewares and the iconic pick ‘n’ mix – ensure that Wellies retains a distinct whiff of Woolies.
The generally professional feel of the instore signage, visual merchandising and shelf labelling also gives the impression of a business that is much larger than just a single store.
Upstairs, in the staff and stockroom areas, the Woolworths heritage is more explicit. Claire pointed out the old noticeboard outside the staff room, which retains its Woolies logo and the slightly odd strapline ‘People serving people’ – presumably a fairly fundamental principle for any retailer.
Meanwhile, in the stockroom, Claire revealed that most product categories are stored in the same locations as they were in the Woolworths days, and that staff often still refer to them by their Woolies department numbers. Old habits, it would seem, die hard!
Yet for all the reminders of the past, Claire’s tailoring of ranges for the local market ensures that Wellies has grown into a store that feels very much a part of its community and has developed a personality of its own. Some of this is no doubt down to Claire’s own prominence and visibility; while I was touring the shopfloor with her, for example, she was approached by a customer who clearly knew who she was and wanted her to direct them to the shoe polish aisle.
As Claire took me around her store, many of the most interesting stories related to how the shop’s ranges have been tweaked over time in response to customer demand, with new categories introduced, and some established ones expanded or reduced. Claire highlighted this as one of the big differences between Woolies and Wellies – moving from a format where store managers had limited power over the products that customers were offered, to one where Claire and her team can respond decisively if categories are underperforming or show further potential.
Near the tills, for example, Claire has recently introduced a small range of groceries from Booker’s Euro Shopper value range. This features everyday products such as tinned foods, biscuits and jams, and is apparently proving popular.
Though always a staple of Woolworths’ offer, entertainment is another category that Claire chose not to bring in at Wellies in the beginning, but has subsequently introduced in response to customer demand. The primary reason for not stocking CDs and DVDs to start with – the wafer-thin margins on chart product – remains an issue, and Claire highlighted how a new DVD can be cheaper to buy at Tesco than it is from her supplier. However, she noted that the popularity of the store’s back-catalogue ranges takes off some of the pressure to stock every new release.
Another recent arrival is the computer accessories department, introduced on a concession basis but fully integrated into the overall look and feel of the store. This has apparently been more successful than expected, and is going to be expanded further in the coming weeks.
One department that I was bound to ask about was picture frames, which everyone remembers from the 2009 How Woolies Became Wellies documentary on BBC One. The programme charted the run-up to the store’s opening and Claire’s recruitment of a young buyer – since departed from the company – who memorably filled an entire aisle with picture frames of every size and type. Happily, his legacy lives on in what Claire admitted is one of the store’s most popular product categories, recently supplemented with a small range of canvas prints.
Children’s clothing, in contrast, is an area that Claire highlighted as performing less well than hoped. Like entertainment, it was another ex-Woolies staple that Wellworths hadn’t initially stocked, but later introduced in response to customers’ requests. I noticed that items were being cleared at 40% off marked prices, and Claire told me that she plans to focus more attention on childrens’ accessories – such as gloves and socks – which have performed more strongly for the store to date.
When I visited the store, preparations were already underway for today’s relaunch, and, contrary to what you might expect, Claire explained that the cost of switching names will be relatively low. For example, the store’s business card and letterhead supplies were already running out, while its Wellworths-branded hardware products will be replaced with Wellchester ones as stock is sold through.
The retention of the logo’s existing typeface and orange and blue colour scheme means that the window vinyls and instore signage – which features the corporate colours, but not the store name – do not have to be changed, and even at the front of the store, the ‘Well-‘ half of the fascia can be kept with only the ‘-worths’ part replaced. At the same time, Claire is using the relaunch as an opportunity to tidy up the store’s rear service entrance on Trinity Street, adding signage where previously there was none.
Overall then, I was pretty impressed with what Claire and her team have achieved at Wellies. It’s a good-looking, well-stocked store, with many attractive and keenly priced products. Indeed, most things about it – from the product to the presentation – are much better than the slightly disappointing Alworths (now long gone) that I visited in Amersham last year.
Importantly, Claire and the other staff also seem to have a great team dynamic, and exude a real sense of enjoying their work – perhaps not too surprising, given their history of working together back in the Woolworths days.
Most crucially of all, perhaps, Wellies was busy with shoppers for the full hour and a half that I was there. When Claire first launched Wellworths in 2009, she made the point that Woolworths in Dorchester had always been profitable, and it’s easy to see why. There’s no doubt that the store benefits both from its great location at the heart of Dorchester’s main thoroughfare – next to Marks & Spencer and opposite the independent department store Goulds – as well as from limited local competition in quite a few of its product categories.
However, in evolving Wellworths into Wellchester over the last two-and-a-half years, Claire seems to have avoided the trap of taking any success for granted, or of coasting along on the back of the store’s celebrity. Through decisive management and the hard work of all its staff, Wellchester has grown – and is still growing – into a store of which both Claire and Dorchester can be proud, and that performs a valuable function on the town’s high street.
Challenges lie ahead, for sure. Nationally, the economic situation is still flaky, while in Dorchester itself, Simons Developments’ Charles Street Project – set to feature 20 new shops and a replacement Waitrose – will bring both opportunities and competition for the town’s established retailers. Equally, any new Wellchester stores will need to respond to their local communities’ needs in just the way that Wellies in Dorchester has.
However, having met Claire, I certainly wouldn’t bet against her achieving her retail ambitions. Today is a new start for Wellchester, and it will be fascinating to see where it goes next.