M&Co and the ex-Woolies in Sidmouth and Sherborne
In previous posts, I’ve noted the difficulty I have in finding time to blog about all the former Woolworths sites that I’ve visited – not a great surprise, now that I’ve passed the 200 mark!
Though I previously mentioned its uncanny resemblance to the Ledbury store (#696), one of the ex-Woolies I haven’t properly blogged about is Sidmouth, in Devon (#729). Today, however – 12 March 2012 – seems as good a time as any to fix that, given that it’s the 74th anniversary of the store opening its doors on 12 March 1938.
Clearly a purpose-built Woolworths shop, the High Street store was modernised in both 1967 and 1984, before having its grocery offer withdrawn as part of Woolies’ ‘Operation Focus’ in 1986. Following the store’s closure on 30 December 2008, in the wake of Woolworths’ collapse, the premises were empty for a few months before being taken over, in August 2009, by the Mackays-owned fashion chain M&Co. Interestingly, the store was one of the first to feature M&Co’s ‘new design concept’, previously trialled in Surbiton, “which introduces peninsular units, central features and more warmth and interest to our fitting rooms”.
Tracing its roots back to 1833, the Scotland-based and privately-owned M&Co has been a quiet success story on the high street in recent years. Earlier this year its store count passed 300 for the first time, and – unlike some of its discount fashion peers – it is consistently profitable, reporting an increased pre-tax profit of £8.7m for the most recent financial year.
Here in the North East it operates more than a dozen stores – mostly in smaller towns or secondary high streets such as Houghton-le-Spring, Billingham and Guisborough – though it has recently closed underperforming stores in Cramlington, Stanley and Seaham.
In Northumberland, as I’ve blogged previously, M&Co’s Alnwick store occupies the town’s former Woolworths premises, and the chain has snapped up a modest number of ex-Woolies sites in other market-town locations across the country.
One of those is the delightful town of Sherborne in Dorset (#714), which, coincidentally, also first welcomed Woolworths 74 years ago this month – though not initially, it would seem, in the premises that M&Co now occupies.
Sherborne’s first Woolworths opened in Cheap Street on 24 March 1938, though I’m yet to pinpoint the exact address of this original store. I have confidence, however, that Soult’s Retail View readers will once again help us get to the bottom of this particular mystery!
Three decades later, on 26 September 1968, Woolworths’ own company records and its 1969 Annual Report indicate that the store moved to the larger 1920s-built shop at 55 Cheap Street from where it would trade for the next forty years. Like Sidmouth, it benefited from a sprucing up in 1983, and had its food department withdrawn in 1986.
As well as groceries, another of the categories that Woolworths withdrew from in the mid-1980s was adult clothing, which it had dabbled with in the 1970s and again in 1983. There’s surely an irony, therefore, in the fact that thirty years later, so much of Woolworths’ former estate is now once again dedicated to selling fashion or food.