Remembering Shoppers World: Woolworths’ early Argos-style experiment
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It’s always good to receive updates on former Woolies sites that I’ve previously featured here at Soult’s Retail View, so I was pleased to get an email yesterday from Martin, a regular Midlands-based contributor.
He told me that he’d visited both Burton upon Trent and Coalville in the last couple of days, and that both town’s ex-Woolies still show no sign of imminent reoccupation. Indeed, Coalville’s seems to have taken a step backwards, with Martin reporting that “The ‘Mather Jamie’ sign is still up but has reverted to ‘for let’ rather than ‘under offer’ as was the case when you last visited.”
It would be interesting to discover which retailer had got as far as making an offer for the 24,612 sq ft property, and what caused the transaction not to go ahead. Meanwhile, according to the Mather Jamie website, interested parties can snap up the unit for a rent of £50,000 a year.
Interestingly, Martin was also able to reveal a little more about the Coalville Woolies’ past, telling me that he could remember a ‘Shoppers World’ being incorporated into the store in the late 1970s.
Launched by the then still US-owned F W Woolworth & Co Ltd in September 1974, Shoppers World – seemingly with no apostrophe – was an early chain of “catalogue discount stores”, similar in concept to Argos, whose first stores had opened in July 1973. Information on the chain is surprisingly hard to come by, but piecing together details from various sources gives at least a partial picture of Shoppers World’s rise and ultimate fall.
It’s perhaps ironic that the Woolworths Virtual Museum – formerly hosted at museum.woolworths.co.uk – closed along with the rest of the Woolies website following the business’s collapse into administration in 2008, at just the time when its detailed reflections on Woolworths’ history would have been most useful.
Happily, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine ensures that a 2008 snapshot of the Woolworths Virtual Museum site still exists online, with the page about 1970s “diversification and rationalisation” offering a few (fuzzy) images of a Shoppers World store (above), and some comment on the concept’s significance at the time of its launch:
“…new for the 1970s was “Shoppers World” – a Catalogue Shop. This was a first for the UK, at a time when agents sold catalogue items from Littlewoods and Great Universal Stores in the home, normally on extended credit terms.”
“The only High Street catalogue “shopping” were stores that exchanged collectable coupons and tokens given away as a sales incentive with purchases for goods. Cigarette and petrol companies and some supermarkets gave coupons or Green Shield Stamps, which could buy goods from a catalogue. These were ordered by post or (in the case of Green Shield Stamps) could be collected in High Street redemption centres. Some years later [1973, as noted above] the Green Shield Stamp shops became Argos.”
“Shoppers World were the first to sell items from a catalogue for cash or on credit for immediate collection in store.”
Richard A Hawkins’ useful 2009 conference paper, The Inﬂuence of American Retailing Innovation in Britain: A Case Study of F. W. Woolworth & Co., 1909-1982, gives a bit more detail on store locations (p.128), noting that the chain was launched in Leeds, and initially comprised 14 shops – 13 of them converted from Woolworths – in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. At the time, the Yorkshire Post reported that the Leeds store was in the Merrion Centre, and would be opening on 12 September 1974. As I blogged before, the Merrion Centre later played host to an eponymous Woolworths store (pictured below), which opened in the 1980s – does anyone know whether this was the same location as the former Shoppers World?
I haven’t been able to find a full list of original (or subsequent) Shoppers World store locations, but from checking out online discussions the early sites seem to have included former Woolies stores in Sparkhill (store #499) and Harborne (#575) in Birmingham, as well as Brownhills in nearby Walsall. Happily, Duncan (co-ophistorian on Flickr, who took the 1993 shot of Burton’s original Woolies that I featured previously) has a recent photo of what appears to be the old Sparkhill Woolworths / Shoppers World building, and which today houses a Barnardos charity shop.
A rather small and indistinct map on the Woolworths Virtual Museum site shows the extent of the Shoppers World chain in 1975, though the key is obviously wrong – the black dots are clearly Woolco (including the three North East stores at Killingworth, Washington and Thornaby), while the red ones are Shoppers World. I’ve corrected the annotation on the version reproduced at the top of this blog post.
It’s difficult to make out how many red dots there are – about 20, I reckon – but it clearly shows that the 1975 Shoppers World estate was still very much focused on the West Midlands, North West and Yorkshire, plus the single store in London, opened in September 1975, that Hawkins refers to in his paper. By the end of the decade, the chain had expanded to 52 stores – presumably including the shop in Coalville, as well as one in Harrogate that James Masterson mentions in his blog – and was apparently breaking even. Argos, by comparison, opened its 100th store, in Derby, in 1980, so Shoppers World hadn’t done too bad a job of keeping up with the growth of its competitor.
However, despite having a decent-sized estate of nearly-profitable and reportedly popular stores, the whole Shoppers World business was closed down following the 1982 split of British Woolworths from its US parent, and its purchase by Paternoster Stores. By April 1983, Hawkins notes, the last of the 43 remaining Shoppers World stores were shut, ending a dalliance with catalogue retailing that had lasted less than a decade but presumably incurred some considerable expense.
In his fascinating Doctorvee blog, Duncan Stephen – web editor at St Andrew’s University, and a former Woolies sales assistant – highlights the closure of Shoppers World as a “blunder of Woolworths”. He notes how the belated introduction of The Big Red Book, in summer 2006, was essentially a reinvention of the catalogue concept that Woolies had abandoned more than two decades earlier, but executed, this time around, in a manner that was “inept” and “doomed to fail”.
If Woolworths struggled to beat Argos when the latter had just 100 stores, competing with a 700-plus-strong Argos chain was always going to be a tall order – particularly if, as Duncan argues, stock availability from The Big Red Book was consistently poor, and resulted in consistently disappointed customers. After just a couple of years, The Big Red Book was scrapped in late 2008, but too late to save a business that by then was on the brink of administration.
No-one can really predict how things might have turned out if Woolworths had stuck with Shoppers World instead of abandoning it. Duncan Stephen remarks that “maybe if they [Woolworths] persevered they would never have had to worry about Argos.” On the other hand, it might have proved an expensive disaster, and yet another distraction from the core Woolies business. Indeed, even Argos has seen its growth stall in the last couple of years, as the big supermarkets have muscled further into its territory in both bricks and clicks. However, Argos’ most recent, and much-reduced, half-year profit – of £54.4m on sales of £1.81bn – is still a figure that Woolies could only have dreamed of in its latter days, as it barely managed to scrape a profit on sales of around £3bn.
By pulling together some of what we know about Woolworths’ Shoppers World experiment, I’m hoping that this post will prompt further discussion and insights. Can you remember the locations of Shoppers World stores close to where you were at the time? What are your memories of shopping in the stores? And what became of the sites following the chain’s closure? If you have any comments do post them below, or if – by some miracle – you even have a 1970s or 80s photo of a Shoppers World store, I’d be thrilled if you were willing to share it. As always, you can submit images for potential inclusion in the blog using the contact form.
Looking forward to your contributions!