What’s become of North Yorkshire’s former Woolies?
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As well as comprehensively exploring the North East, and making the occasional excursion into Cumbria or Scotland, I’ve also clocked a few of North Yorkshire’s former Woolworths stores over the last few months.
Assuming I haven’t missed any, the county still had nine Woolworths stores at the time of the retailer’s collapse – in Harrogate (#131), Malton (#591), Northallerton (#847), Richmond (#641), Ripon (#492), Scarborough (#165), Selby (#663), Skipton (#579) and Whitby (#384) – three of which I’ve visited to date.
One store not on that list – Knaresborough (#686; not visited yet) – came within a whisker of surviving until the bitter end. Following the sale of its lease to Tesco, the store had already closed down on 15 November 2008, just 11 days before the whole Woolworths business fell into administration.
Another casualty from earlier in 2008 was the flagship store in York’s Spurriergate (#171), which closed in January of that year. Originally opened on 25 October 1924, the store was significantly extended and remodelled over the years. The site has now been taken over by Boots, with TK Maxx recently opening up in the smaller Coney Street premises that Boots vacated. Elsewhere in the county, Boots has also taken over the old Woolworths premises in Harrogate, relocating from a smaller unit across the street.
Over on the Yorkshire coast, the old Woolies in Scarborough and Whitby have both acquired new occupants in recent months.
On the face of it, Scarborough’s branch in Westborough looks like an integral part of the town’s Brunswick Shopping Centre, opened in 1990, with its modern redbrick appearance.
In fact, a Woolworths store first opened on the site on 13 September 1924, and its current frontage is merely a 1990 skin on the front of what is basically a 1960s building. Go around the side, and the unmodernised Vernon Road frontage is quintessential postwar Woolies, with more than a passing resemblance to the contemporaneous Linthorpe Road store in Middlesbrough.
After remaining empty for more than twelve months, Poundland opened on the site in February this year – to the dismay of some. Indeed, where Facebook has tended to be full of groups advocating the arrival of one retailer or another in their town, Scarborough’s Poundland has prompted 2,800 members to join a group called ‘Scarborough Woolworths should not be a Poundland!’. While it’s good that the site is no longer empty, it is hard to argue with the view that Poundland trading from only one of Woolies’ two floors is rather a waste of the building’s potential.
Happily, the new occupant of Whitby’s former Woolies seems to have prompted less controversy. Scottish-based Outdoor World opened two outdoor leisurewear stores there in June: The Wilderness, trading from the upper level facing Flowergate; and Pine Valley, on the ground floor with access from St Anne’s Staith. When I visited, the stores’ layout, ranges and overall feel reminded me of Mountain Warehouse, another expanding discount outdoor retailer.
The building’s unusual configuration, built into a steep slope, allows both floors of the 1930 building to be independently accessed from opposite streets, as well as creating two interesting frontages that hardly seem to bear any relation to one another.
The Flowergate side has all the typical features of a purpose-built Woolies from the era – the five bays, central pediment, etc. – but with an extra storey compared to usual. Sitting at the bottom of Flowergate, this is a fine and imposing frontage that really dominates the street.
Around the other side, the property is no less impressive, towering over the buildings around it. Here, logic dictates, the building is four storeys high, but the clever use of a deep fascia gives the illusion of it still being three. The overall effect is slightly quirky – almost a typical Woolies façade, but one that has been vertically stretched. Certainly, with its position overlooking the harbour, there can be few old Woolies stores that occupy a more picturesque spot.
North Yorkshire’s remaining Woolies sites host the usual range of expanding discount retailers. The store in Richmond – much more of which in a future post – is now Heron Foods, Northallerton’s is Wilkinson, and Ripon’s is The Original Factory Shop. Malton’s old Woolies had also been expected to become The Original Factory Shop, but the retailer lost out when the site owners decided to let the premises to WHSmith instead.
All this means that North Yorkshire, like Cumbria, approaches the two-year anniversary of Woolworths’ collapse with every one of its former Woolies sites reoccupied – not a bad result at all given the economic climate in which we find ourselves.
Even in the North East, only seven of the 33 vacated stores – in Hartlepool, Metrocentre, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Newton Aycliffe, Peterlee and Wallsend – remain without a new tenant in place or lined up.
Taking the North East, Cumbria and North Yorkshire as a whole, we therefore find that of the 51 sites that were left empty when Woolies folded, 44 – or 86% – have secured new occupants.
What does this tell us? Well, Woolworths might have got things badly wrong in the end, but its demise has given newer, smarter, leaner retailers an unprecedented opportunity to grow. With our high streets changing and under pressure, we should surely be proud of those retailers that are now seizing the initiative, and doing well where others have failed.