Shop Direct’s move to protect the Woolies brand – Wellworth the bad press?
Last week’s news that the celebrated Wellworths store, in Dorchester, is being forced to change its name by Shop Direct reignites one of the most interesting threads to emerge from Woolworths’ collapse – the battle for the good bits of Woolies’ legacy.
The gist of this latest development is that Shop Direct – who, you’ll remember, bought the Woolworths brand from the administrators following the retailer’s collapse – was apparently content for Wellworths to keep its current name, provided that the business curtailed any expansion plans.
According to Wellworths’ statement, Shop Direct “initially supported the opening of the former Woolworths store in Dorchester as Wellworths, but then sought an agreement which would place limits on the growth of the business under the Wellworths name.”
It continues: “Regretfully, rather than accept those limits, Wellworths have decided to replace the Wellworths name with Wellchester over the course of the next two years.”
Inevitably, the ‘well worth the money’ tagline will have to go too, with trade mark details on the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) website suggesting that it will be replaced with (the admittedly rather bland) ‘something for everyone.’ If one is being critical, it’s also fair to ask whether Wellchester – a name so obviously associated with the retailer’s place of origin – is the best brand for rolling out to other parts of the country. Still, the fact that the new name can still be abbreviated to ‘Wellies’ was surely part of the thinking behind it.
No-one disputes that Shop Direct, like any other business, is entitled to protect its brand – but at what price? Time will tell whether the benefits of its actions outweigh what seems to be the overwhelmingly negative reaction from both the media and the public.
Writing on Twitter, for example, the editor of industry bible Retail Week remarked that “Shop Direct are idiots for making Wellworths change its name”, describing the move as “astonishingly petty.” His colleague, George MacDonald, agreed, branding the move “heavy-handed.”
Other Twitterers, such as dorset_flickr, voiced similar views, remarking how it was “interesting that such [a] big company feels so threatened by [a] name that isn’t [the] same – obviously Wellworths could go places.” Comments about Shop Direct’s actions on the Dorset Echo website have been similarly uncharitable, with the words “petty” and “heavy-handed” consistently used.
All this reaction matters, because these are the same people who will determine the success – or not – of Shop Direct’s own Woolworths.co.uk operation. Merely owning the Woolies name isn’t enough – Shop Direct needs to understand the heritage of the brand that it’s acquired, and to harness the goodwill that used to be associated with that name. Without that magic, the business is just Littlewoods with a different label.
Perhaps the nub of the issue is that Wellworths and the other fledgling ‘son of Woolies’ enterprises, such as Alworths and Smallworths, seem to have understand what people most liked about Woolies, and have embraced those cherished values of friendliness, warmth and convenience on the high street – values, indeed, that are challenging to replicate in an entirely online operation, however much pic ‘n’ mix you’re able to send out by City Link.
Instead of Shop Direct fighting battles for Woolies’ legacy – and Alworths MD, Andy Latham, is understandably coy about what the Wellworths decision might mean for his own chain – it could do worse than learn from the successes of its not-quite-namesakes.