Alworths plans Cupar and Forfar openings, as Graham pays a visit to Amersham
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It seems that the ‘son of Woolworths’ chain Alworths has two new stores in the offing. Fife Today is reporting that Alworths will be opening up in the former Woolworths store in Cupar, while jobs are already being advertised for a new store in Forfar, in Angus, that is due to open in June.
If confirmed, these will be Alworths’ eighth and ninth stores in total, and its first outside the south of England. [UPDATE, 1 June 2010: The Scotsman has reported today that the Cupar store will open on 16 June and the Forfar shop on 18 June, with plans for another eight Alworths stores in Scotland].
As blogged about in July, Cupar’s old Woolies, in Crossgate, had been taken over by Glasgow-based value retailer Pound-Mart, alongside other former Woolworths sites in Rutherglen, Forfar and Bathgate. However, the Pound-Mart shops in both Cupar and Forfar closed down at the end of April, after just eight months of trading.
As far as I’m aware (it’s not entirely clear, given that the Pound-Mart website still lists them as open), the closures of the Forfar and Cupar stores leaves Pound-Mart with a three-strong store portfolio in Scotland – centred upon its flagship store in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street – but, according to the website, with continued plans to expand during 2010 and 2011.
Alworths, meanwhile, has been steadily pursuing its own growth plans, taking over former Woolies sites in Didcot, Amersham, Evesham, Warminster, Wokingham, Cosham and, most recently, New Milton in Hampshire. To date, however, only two shops have opened in 2010, suggesting that Alworths’ stated ambition to open 22 shops in the 12 months to November 2010 may have been over-optimistic.
Still, adopting a sensible approach to growth is often no bad thing for a retailer – the collapse of businesses like Vergo Retail and Silverscreen shows what can happen when a retail chain expands too rapidly, taking on new stores before it’s properly got to grips with the existing ones. It will be interesting to see whether Alworths’ first appearance in Scotland signals a shift in pace in its goal to become a truly national, small-town variety store retailer.
As one of the more interesting retail stories to emerge from the debris of Woolworths’ collapse, I’ve blogged previously about the opening of Alworths stores in Amersham and Cosham, and the launch of its website. I hadn’t, however, had the chance to visit an Alworths store myself, given that there are none yet here in the North East, and none close to anywhere else that I’d been travelling. When I was in London in a couple of weekends ago, I therefore took the opportunity to hop on the tube to Amersham in Buckinghamshire, to check out an Alworths store for myself.
I’d only once been to Buckinghamshire before, and never to Amersham. Upon arriving at the station, it struck me as an attractive and quite well-to-do market town, typical of those that encircle Greater London. The shops are a good mixture of independents and chains, including high street staples such as M&S Simply Food (in the former Budgens), Costa, Greggs, Waterstone’s, Iceland, and the very first branch of the now 50-strong toy shop chain, The Entertainer.
There are also branches of some chains that are well-known to southern shoppers but not seen up here in the north, such as the home shop Cargo and the ironmongers Robert Dyas. The latter, I noted, featured the retailer’s new logo and store design, certainly conveying a fresher and more modern image than the old look, spotted earlier that same day in Harrow.
Many of Amersham’s stores are clustered along the main thoroughfares of Hill Avenue and Sycamore Road, the latter proving quite a challenge to cross given the volume of traffic passing through the town. Alworths sits in a good location in the middle of Sycamore Road, sharing its building with a new WHSmith store that only opened in April, in a unit that previously housed Halfords.
I’ve no idea if WHSmith’s arrival was influenced by Alworths already taking over the Woolies unit next door, but it’s certainly a positive thing for the town to have two decent retailers occupying a building that was completely empty for the latter part of 2009.
So, what about Alworths then? The first thing to note is that Amersham does seem like a good choice of location, with no other department or variety store in the town. Depending upon the product being sought, WHSmith, Robert Dyas and The Entertainer seem likely to offer the main competition.
Externally, the distinctive purple and blue fascia was easy to spot, while the window display was pleasingly simple. Clutter outside the store was also kept to a minimum, restricted to a display of plants and pots and a freestanding National Lottery sign.
Though there was a steady flow of of schoolchildren and others popping into Alworths, my initial reaction was that the store didn’t seem very busy for a Friday lunchtime. On the other hand, when I visited Superdrug and Julian Graves a little later I was the only customer in both those stores, suggesting that the town in general was having a quiet spell. (Many thanks, incidentally, to Rory in Julian Graves, who was able to offer some useful suggestions of where I might find lunch in Amersham. The Boot & Slipper pub proved to be a good choice!)
Upon entering Alworths, my overwhelming sensation was one of familiarity. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped into a Woolworths, given the very similar look and feel. At the front of the shop, an impressive (and inevitable) pick and mix selection and a decent range of CDs and DVDs are among the first items that a customer sees.
On key criteria, I felt that the store performed well – it was well stocked, prices seemed reasonable, and the staff were friendly and smart in appearance (the latter something that didn’t always seem to be the case in old Woolworths stores, perhaps due in part to the unflattering red uniforms).
I did feel, however, that there were a couple of important areas for improvement. The first related to navigation around the store, which was more difficult than I expected. Though there was signage (for ‘Toys’, ‘Home’, etc.) around the edge of the store, I felt that the gondola units in the middle of the shopfloor would also benefit from some signage, either attached to the units or suspended from the ceiling above.
My second criticism concerned the slightly tired and dowdy quality of the store interior. This had clearly been retained from the old Woolworths store – hence the quick turnaround in getting the store opened last November. In doing that, however, Alworths didn’t really feel like a shop that had only been open six months. The ceiling, for instance, bore all the signs of having many years of hanging signs and Christmas decorations attached to it, while the floor was patched in several places with yellow and black gaffer tape.
Like many old Woolworths stores, the narrow and deep shape of the unit also reinforces the slightly gloomy feel. Inevitably, this is more difficult to do anything about, but it would make a real positive impact if Alworths was able to get more light into the back of the shop, either by bringing in extra daylight through the street frontage (currently largely obscured by screens), or by using artificial light creatively.
Assuming that Alworths is indeed a success – as I hope it will be – investing in these kinds of improvements will greatly enhance the customer experience, and will reassure shoppers that their local store is planning on being around for the long term. As the Alworths chain expands further – and particularly if it starts taking over shops that were not formerly Woolworths – it will be interesting to see how it develops its own, more confident store interior style.