Five years after closure, Newton Aycliffe Woolworths may soon be occupied
If you’ve managed to miss me hogging the airwaves this morning – on BBC Radio 5 Live (which you can listen to here), Wales, Scotland, and Coventry & Warwickshire so far – you may not be aware that today is the fifth anniversary of Woolworths finally closing its doors.
On 6 January 2009, the last 207 Woolworths stores were shuttered for good, bringing the curtain down on a retail institution that had lasted nearly a century but finally unravelled – amid unsustainable debts, a confused market positioning and nippier competition – in the space of just forty days.
At the time, the closure of 807 prime stores in a matter of days was, arguably, the biggest single upheaval that Britain’s high streets had ever seen (or is likely to see again), releasing 6.9m sq ft of lettable retail space at a stroke. However, as my updated research into the fate of all those 807 sites shows, the retail sector’s capacity to plug the gap left by Woolworths has been remarkable.
I’m letting the local and national media share some of the meatiest findings before I publish them here later in the week, but there are certainly some eyecatching headlines. Poundland, for example, has taken far more ex-Woolworths sites across the UK than anyone else – 93, or about 1 in every 9 stores. Add in Iceland, 99p Stores and B&M, and you have four successful, growing, value-focused retailers who between them occupy a third of the former Woolworths estate nationwide.
The low vacancy rate, five years on, is also worthy of note. Four stores have been demolished as part of wider redevelopments; take those away, and the number of sites that are currently empty is just 29, or less than 4% of the store count. Of those, most are empty as the result of Woolworths’ successors closing or collapsing in turn, and only six stores – or less than 1% of the total – have remained empty the entire time since Woolworths departed.
One of those six, interestingly, is the ex-Woolworths down the road in Newton Aycliffe, where the shop’s Woolworths lettering could still be seen until fairly recently. That’s now gone, sadly yet gladly, as part of a much-needed revamp of both the Woolies building and the wider town centre. With Beveridge Way’s old concrete ramp removed, investment in new shopfronts and public realm improvements, and the development of a new Aldi store, Newton Aycliffe feels transformed from the tired and depressing town centre that I first visited in March 2010.
Instead of what felt like a place in terminal decline, Newton Aycliffe town centre now has the positive vibe of somewhere that is forward looking and cared for – always important ingredients in trying to attract private sector investment. It seems to have paid off, too, with news that the empty Woolworths premises are finally under offer to a big (but as yet unknown) national name after five years of vacancy.
The plans, I’m told, involve merging the 3,703 sq ft store at 30 Beveridge Way (marketed at an annual rent of £43,750) with adjacent units to create a larger space, with a planning application expected soon. Once approved, the new occupant is expected to be up and running sometime in the summer. Who might it be? Well, depending on who you talk to, the speculation – and it’s no more than that for now – is that it could be a relocated Poundstretcher or even an M&S Simply Food. JD Wetherspoon – who claimed to have identified a Newton Aycliffe site in March last year – must also be in the frame. Whoever it is, it will be a welcome investment in a unit that has been empty too long.
Elsewhere in the North East, only the Peterlee Woolworths remains stubbornly empty, after Poundland’s short-lived tenure came to an end in 2012. It’s interesting that while Poundland is still successfully trading from 93 ex-Woolworths locations, there are, I believe, only three ex-Woolies where Poundland has subsequently vacated the premises – Peterlee, Fleet (in Hampshire, where the 14,331 sq ft unit in the Hart Centre is still empty and up for rent at £50,000 pa), and Evesham (where a temporary letting to Poundland – in what had been Alworths – made way for Sports Direct).
It does suggest that something somewhere is awry when a retailer as successful and growing as Poundland can’t make a go of a store in Peterlee, where the town centre retail offer already has a strong value focus. Perhaps the annual rent – at £50,000 for 5,084 sq ft of ground floor retail – is a touch on the high side given the slightly edge-of-centre location, though that’s still less than the £54,000 pa that Woolworths was paying prior to its demise.
For the moment, however, we’ll have to make do with 31 of the 33 North East ex-Woolworths being reoccupied on the fifth anniversary of the chain’s closure – and wait a little longer for that tantalisingly close clean sweep.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including detailed coverage of ex-Woolworths locations nationwide. It also works with retailers 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.