Alworth the wait? The latest ‘Son of Woolworths’ opens its second shop
Following in the footsteps of Dorchester’s Wellworths, Stornoway’s Wee W and even Wallsend’s Well Worth It , the latest ‘son of Woolworths’ store – Alworths – opened the doors to its second store in Amersham, Buckinghamshire yesterday.
To date, the various Woolies ‘offspring’ have tended to be one-off, locally-driven responses to the gap that Woolworths left on particular high streets. In the case of Wellies and Wee W, the impetus has even come from former Woolies staff.
Alworths also has a strong Woolies connection, in that its founder and MD, Andy Latham – hence the ‘AL-‘ in Alworths – used to be Woolworths’ head of store and concessions development. Where Alworths differs from the others, however, is in embarking upon an ambitious opening programme from the very start. This makes it the first genuine retail chain to emerge from the ashes of Woolworths, though speculation remains that Clare Robertson’s much-celebrated Wellworths might expand beyond Dorchester before long.
Alworths’ inaugural store, in Didcot in Oxfordshire, opened a week ago, poignantly (and intentionally) on the 100th anniversary to the day of Woolworths first appearing on a UK high street.
Three more stores – in Evesham, Warminster and Wokingham – are due to open in the next fortnight, with Alworths reportedly planning to open an ambitious total of 22 stores over the next 12 months.
However, as Alworths makes its presence felt across the south of England, the obvious question is whether it can succeed where Woolworths ultimately failed. In short, is there a place in modern retailing for Alworths? And, if so, what does Shop Direct – owner of the now online-only Woolworths brand – have to say about the matter?
The industry paper Retail Week has been surprisingly sniffy about Alworths’ prospects, with editor Tim Danaher asking “what’s the point of reinventing something which failed, particularly as all the best ex-Woolies stores will now have been taken by other retailers?”, and endorsing the view of an RW reader who had argued that “The son of Woolworths already exists – it’s called Wilkinson”.
When news of the Alworths venture was first announced, RW also suggested that the new business had missed the boat – if it wanted to capitalise on the goodwill towards the old Woolies, then it was no good making its appearance ten months after Woolworths’ demise.
Admittedly, Alworths was quite a long time coming – Latham and his then business partners were talking about the idea for the business as far back as February – but I do, in this instance, think RW’s scepticism is unjustified. Here, in summary, are a few reasons why I think Alworths stands a good chance of success.
1) People want it
Though some people have questioned the point of a new Woolworths-like chain, reaction in the places where Alworths is opening seems to be largely enthusiastic. Indeed, some towns, such as Chippenham, have been clamouring to get an Alworths of their own – even to the extent of making rather patronising comments about “the people who would use” the Poundland store that is slated for the town’s former Woolworths site.
That enthusiasm is because, ten months on, many towns still do have an empty shop where their Woolies used to be, and still miss not being able to buy locally the types of products that Woolworths used to sell. Which brings us on to the fact that…
2) Alworths stores seem to be opening in sensible locations
Look at the list of Alworths stores announced to date – Didcot, Amersham, Evesham, Warminster and Wokingham – and it’s clear that all are relatively small market towns with a population of less than 30,000.
This seems a canny move, given that it’s in exactly these types of (usually Wilkinson-free) locations that a variety store – selling a wide range of goods that cannot be easily obtained elsewhere in the town – is likely to thrive, and where the absence of Woolworths has been most keenly felt. Which brings us on to the fact that…
3) Alworths is not Woolworths
At its time of closure, Woolworths had more than 800 shops. In a year’s time, Alworths might have 22.
Where the good bits of the Woolworths business were dragged down by its unprofitable and frankly grotty stores in other locations, Alworths has the advantage of being able to choose sites that fit the business as it is today. Furthermore, all will be clean, fresh and modern, and able to offer a much better customer environment than many Woolworths stores were able to.
For me, the size and quality of the store estate was Woolies’ biggest problem towards the end, not the product mix. Which brings us on to the fact that…
4) Alworths is not 99p Stores / Home Bargains / Poundand / B&M Bargains / The Original Factory Shop (delete as applicable)
One of the strengths of Woolworths was that you could pop in for a box of staples, a Lego model, a pair of pillowcases, and some wine glasses and be pretty confident that the store would have what you wanted.
While the discounters that have been snapping up old Woolies sites across the country are undoubtedly successful, and clearly have a place on the high street, there’s a difference between Woolworths’ – and now Alworths’ – range-driven offer, and those newer stores that seem to be driven instead by price.
Yes, I can drop into Poundland or Home Bargains and get some great offers – but with those stores I find it much harder than with Woolworths to know exactly what will be available from one week to the next. Which brings us on to the fact that…
5) Alworths is essentially Woolworths with a different name (but don’t tell Shop Direct that)
One of Alworths’ strengths is clearly its sense of familiarity. All its stores to date are in former Woolies locations, look rather like Woolies inside, sell similar products to Woolies, and in most cases seem to be managed and staffed by former Woolies workers. The main difference seems to be the blue and purple Alworths logo, which is a far cry from the old Woolworths red.
Beyond the Andy Latham link, there are many similarities at an operational level too – for example, Alworths’ head office staff are former Woolworths alumni, and even the signage supplier, stock management system and PR company are the ones that Woolworths used to use. The name, of course, also has a ring of recognition. Which brings us on to the fact that…
6) Alworths seems like an effective brand
One of my quibbles about the aforementioned discount chains – 99p Stores, Home Bargains, Poundand, B&M Bargains, The Original Factory Shop – is the sheer lack of imagination behind their names. They are not so much brands as a description of what they do.
One of the strengths of Woolworths was that its name had some history and meaning. In evoking the name of the chain’s founder, Frank Winfield Woolworth, it gave it a face; an identity. I think that’s why we can feel an affinity with brands like John Lewis, Boots, WHSmith, even Jessops, but don’t have the same affection for faceless (and now defunct) ones like Kwik Save, What Everyone Wants or Your More Store.
In this case, of course, there’s nobody actually called Alworth, though the ‘AL-‘ for Andy Latham is a neat touch. There are real people called Alworth though, so there’s always scope (perish the thought) for Alworths to create a fictional, Hollister-style backstory to match its brand values.
On the downside, the lack of an obvious shortened version of the Alworths name, vis-a-vis Woolies and Wellies, is clearly an oversight. None of Alies, Allies or Alwies are entirely successful. Which brings us (slightly tenuously) onto the fact that…
7) Shop Direct is reportedly grumbling about what it says are the similarities between Alworths and Woolworths… but the British will always support the underdog
Alworths taking at least a sprinkling of inspiration from the former Woolworths reportedly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Shop Direct, the current owners of the online-only Woolworths brand.
It has been widely reported that Shop Direct has “fired a warning shot” over the launch of Alworths, partly driven by the fact that – interestingly – it has not ruled out bringing Woolworths back to the high street itself through a licensing arrangement.
According to Mark Newton-Jones, chief executive of Shop Direct:
We think there is an opportunity [for] a chain of stores in towns across the UK… That is even more of a reason we would defend our position… We are not going to stand by and allow that to happen, using a name and a product mix and trading off the back of the goodwill of the Woolworths business.
Presumably, Shop Direct has been irritated by headlines such as “Woolworths set to relaunch as Alworths”, “The return of ‘Woolworths’ – as Alworths” and “‘Woolworths’ set to return to the high street next month”, which have very much framed Alworths as Woolworths’ rightful successor. To be fair though, this association does, as far as I can tell, seem to have been driven by the media, rather than Alworths itself.
It is an understandable association though. Shop Direct may have bought the Woolworths name, but it seems to me that the actual Woolies heritage – and much of the affection for it – is retained in those vacated stores on our high streets and for the people who used to work there, more so than in a website that, beyonds its name, struggles to evoke the same sense of connection. If a store reopens in the same place as an old Woolworths, featuring the same staff selling very similar products, then of course people are going to feel that their old Woolies has come back in all but name.
Whether Shop Direct’s reported ‘legal letter’ leads to anything more remains to be seen, though its interesting that the company is at the same time reported as having “no issue” with Wellworths. I wonder if this is because the Wellworths brand is not a new creation, but has a previous history – entirely unrelated to Woolworths – as the name of a Northern Irish supermarket chain. That aside, there is always a danger, from a PR point of view, of a large company that is battling with an underdog stoking resentment for the very brand that it is fighting to protect.
Needless to say, in summary, I wish Alworths all the best. I genuinely believe that there is a place for it, and look forward to seeing its store estate creeping northwards in due course.
As long as Alworths keeps doing what it’s doing right – and avoids the pitfalls that Woolworths fell into – there’s every reason, in my view, to think it will be a success.
Many thanks to Hamilton PR for allowing me to use the photographs of Alworths in Amersham and Didcot.