The discount retailers dominating Suffolk’s ex-Woolworths sites
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Alongside its new-look Clintons, the Suffolk town of Stowmarket seems to have come off fairly well from recent retail administrations.
Earlier this year, its ex-Woolworths managed to avoid also becoming an ex-Peacocks, while its ex-Co-op department store was reopened by former staff and management, Wellworths-style, following Vergo Retail’s collapse in 2010 – the same event that triggered Beales’ purchase of Robbs of Hexham. The store continues to trade at the heart of the town under its new Baldwins of Stowmarket monicker, and I hope to talk more about that in a future post.
Back to Stowmarket’s Woolworths, though, and the store opened at 26-30 Market Place (as store #789) on 20 November 1952, trading through until its closure on 30 December 2008 in the wake of Woolies’ collapse. The fashion retailer Peacocks took over the 7,251 sq ft unit just nine months later, and the store was one of the 395 rescued by the Edinburgh Woollen Mill – along with another ex-Woolworths in nearby Felixstowe (#432) – following Peacocks’ own administration in January this year.
Remarkably, this was my first ever visit to Suffolk, and I was able to work in a couple of other ex-Woolworths in the course of my travels. Probably the largest in the county (22,791 sq ft at closure) was the store at 26-32 Carr Street in Ipswich (#148), which opened on 3 November 1923 and was subject to a succession of alterations and improvements over the next 85 years, finally closing on 27 December 2008.
The changes to the Ipswich store over time are rather like a microcosm of Woolies history, reflecting the chain’s periods of growth, decline and occasionally ill-advised forays into new product categories. Thus, extensions to the store during Woolworths’ heyday period – in 1930 and, more radically, 1963 – were partly reversed when the store was downsized again in 1989 and 1990. In between, a restaurant came (in 1968) and went (in 1987), while the store also played host to shortlived garden centre and Electronic World (1984-87) departments.
Historically, therefore, Woolworths occupied the entirety of the building pictured above, though the right-hand portion and basement level were carved off and sublet long before the retailer’s 2008 collapse. JJB Sports occupied that unit for many years, while the intriguingly named Yippee It’s 99p trades from there now. The less said about the garish purple and yellow fascia the better, but the shop isn’t without interest: note how, on the near corner, part of the 1960s Woolworths shopfront – with its shop window and black-granite stall riser – still survives.
Meanwhile, another single-price retailer, Poundland, moved into the latterday Woolworths unit in 2010. Here too there’s a Vergo Retail connection, with Poundland having moved to this site from a previous location within the ex-Co-op and Vergo department store further along the street.
While the Woolworths building is therefore nominally fully let, it’s a pity that the upper floors – long vacated by Woolies itself – are so obviously unused and in poor condition, while even the ground floor is boarded up at the rear (above). Some investment in the property’s external appearance certainly seems overdue, as buildings in such poor condition do little to generate confidence in a retail centre.
If the underused ex-Co-op and neglected ex-Woolworths building portray Carr Street as an area in decline – with Ipswich’s retail focus 300 yards away in Westgate Street – the former Woolworths in Bury St Edmunds (store #325) has managed to remain at the retail heart of this lovely historic town.
Opened in Cornhill on 23 June 1928, Bury’s Woolworths was extended in 1937 and 1964 but seems to have avoided an Ipswich-style downsizing over its 80-year lifetime, finally pulling the shutters down on 27 December 2008.
Despite the strangely soulless Arc development having introduced significant new retail space (including a Debenhams) into the town in March 2009, all the 14,390 sq ft of subdivided space in the former Woolworths was let by the end of 2010, with Poundland and Sports Direct taking the Cornhill-facing units and Tesco Express trading from St Andrew’s Street at the rear.
Overall then, the new occupants of the Suffolk ex-Woolies that I visited – Peacocks, Poundland, Sports Direct, Tesco Express – echo what I’ve seen elsewhere in the country, with new lettings dominated by value and food retailers. This patterm is largely repeated in other Suffolk towns, where East Anglia-based value chain QD Stores has taken the ex-Woolies in Lowestoft, Newmarket and Beccles, and Iceland the sites in Haverhill and Sudbury. Only Woodbridge – which has been split between Fat Face and Lloyds Pharmacy – offers some respite from the norm.
Given how few of the 807 UK ex-Woolworths sites remain empty, the oft-cited claim that the high street is “dying” seems overstated; Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds, certainly, both seem in pretty good shape, even if Ipswich has issues with vacant units and underinvestment in some parts of the town.
However, with a relatively compact group of retailers and uses accounting for much of the reused ex-Woolies space, we just have to hope that consumers don’t get fed up of shopping at discount stores and the big grocers.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including coverage of Suffolk, ex-Woolworths locations, and the discount retail sector. It also works with retailers nationwide to improve their stores, customer communications and market knowledge. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.