Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Wonder of Woollies

‘The Wonder of Woolies’ may soon be no more! Opening in 1909 Woolworths was not only an icon of the British High Street it frequently defined it. Affordable shopping at its best, where shoppers went to ‘pick n’ mix’ and to watch the pennies. Saddled with an enormous debt and a crumbling business model, Woolworths was an inevitable victim of the credit crisis and with its demise go some 30,000 jobs and millions of customers, frequently from a part of society who couldn’t afford to or weren’t able to drive and shop at the brighter out of town shopping malls.

The eight hundred stores across the country are set to close after Christmas and for Thanet, the loss of its high street presence could be a small catastrophe, both in jobs lost to the local economy and the impact it will have on the on-going efforts to regenerate our Thanet towns. I had been worrying for some weeks now that business would collapse under the weight of its debts and had already raised the possibility in conversation but the speed of the announcement took me by surprise and now, the already struggling Ramsgate, Northdown Road and Margate High Street are looking like high-profile local victims of its demise.

Where Government has been busy bailing out the banks, Woolworths was one small part of the same parcel of toxic debt that led to the global collapse of the credit system. Government isn’t so quick to rescue businesses and perhaps more importantly, this particular Government hasn’t been quick to help them either, with the present system business of rates on empty properties creating problems for business and local council landlords alike.

If Government appears to be wringing its hands while businesses like MFI and Woolworths collapse, I read the letters in the local papers: “The council should do this” and “the council should do that” from readers who sincerely believe that their council tax should be spent, like a magic wand, to support struggling local businesses without realising that a council’s job is to provide services with what little money that it has left year on year.

Business and consumer confidence is at a rock-bottom and there are doubts that the VAT cut will tempt cash-strapped consumers back into the shops. Not just in Thanet but in towns across the UK the writing is firmly on the wall for the great British High street, unable to compete effectively against the attraction of internet shopping or the ‘Wonder of Westwood Cross.’ But that’s what people want, it’s called choice and they vote with their feet, the High Street faced by competition from an out of town shopping mall, simply lacks competitive advantage, unless you happen to be part of a captive local audience, without transport or an eBay account.

Woolies survived the Great Depression but perhaps not the crash of 2008.The death of the great British high street has been predicted before and proved wrong many times in the past but perhaps on this occasion, we need to ask if its true and what should replace it in the fast-changing 21st century shopping environment?

But Christmas, recession or not, should be a time of good cheer and goodwill to all men, bloggers, council officers and councillors included and so may I wish you all a very merry Christmas holiday this month and a New Year ahead which won't be as gloomy as the newspapers predict.


Anonymous said...

Fundamentally, the government shouldn't be rescuing failing business models, such as Woolworths.

I really don't understand why so many bloggers attack Westwood Cross so much. What has really killed the high streets is Tesco. Bemoan Tesco by all means, but Westwood had helped retain jobs in Thanet, rather than letting Canterbury steal them all.

The real thing to bear in mind, is that Thanet's high streets and not in the unique situation of being rundown. It is a national epidemic. Are you going to blame it all on Westwood Cross?

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