Catalogue Shopping with Shoppers World (1973-1982)
Woolworth invested heavily to computerise in the 1960s, developing systems in the USA and sharing them with its British subsidiary. This opened new possibilities as the Corporation sought to make its new Woolco superstore ranges available more widely.
In the USA a new catalogue and mail order service was launched in Autumn 1968. Items could be collected in-store, at the post office in the country, or home delivered in-town.
The 124 page book generated good results, attracting attention in the UK. Despite not publishing a catalogue since 1940, the London Directors adopted aspects of the idea, launching a Christmas Catalogue in 1972. This was inserted in the UK's best selling magazine, the Radio Times. The following summer double-page spreads of hand-picked products appeared in women's magazines. The mail order service was marketed as 'Woolworth by Post'.
The initial work inspired a more radical venture. It was felt that a catalogue store could prosper in Britain, offering some of the larger and higher-priced items that had traditionally only been available in city centres and out-of-town. London Executives pooled resources with their opposite numbers in Canada.
In 1973 Britain had no catalogue stores. The closest equivalents were chains of redemption centres for Green Shield Stamps and cigarette coupons. The Kensitas Coupon Redemption Centre in London's Barbican had recently introduced a facility to allow customers to 'top up' their coupons with cash to make more substantial purchases. A similar idea had been adopted by the trading stamps pioneer Richard Tomkins. He took the opportunity to rename his showooms 'Argos'.
Until this point customers had needed to collect vast numbers of stamps over many years to buy larger items. For example 155 books, each containing 32 pages of 40 stamps (or 198,400) were needed to buy the showpiece Lambretta Model L1 150 Series 11 Scooter to the right hand side of the picture above. Typically participating supermarkets gave one stamp for 2½ pence spent on groceries, while some filling stations offered quadruple stamps, meaning that with petrol costing 36p per gallon (8.5p per litre) people received around 120 stamps each time they filled up. A shopper would have to buy 1,240 tanks of petrol for enough stamps to get the scooter or buy £4,870 of groceries. At 1973 prices that was the equivalent of 33 years of weekly supermarket shops for a family!
The Canadian Woolworth opted to use the established Woolco trade name for their Catalogue Operation. The 252 page book drew heavily on the range of the out-of-town discount chain. The shop needed only a small salesfloor, backed by stockroom space behind the scenes. It operated in Ontario, starting in Metro Toronto and expanding to ten dedicated locations and seven shops within Woolworth stores.
Market research in Britain suggested that customers would be confused if two very different chains of shops used the same fascia. Instead the name Shoppers World Catalogue Stores was registered. It was headquartered at the Woolworth London HQ in Marylebone, A dedicated warehouse was hastily opened in Heywood, Lancashire.
Shoppers World was the first purpose designed catalogue store in the UK, and required a lot of ground-breaking work. The store layout drew ideas from the USA, with some of the features of the larger Woolworth stores and Woolco, but offered a wholly new look. The concept still looks remarkably familiar almost forty years after the opening publicity photograph was taken in 1975. Some of the larger and more interesting items from the catalogue were displayed in the windows and in showcases around the store. A bank of catalogues was displayed close to the store front, with a cash desk to pay and get a ticket and a collections desk to receive the goods. There was also a separate personal service jewellery counter. Customers were offered credit terms over 12-48 months, including instant credit if some conditions were met. They were actively encouraged to ask staff to show them the goods to help them to decide, and everything was backed by a guarantee that any unused item with its packaging could be returned for a refund.
Third party partners were hired to assist with the development of a 196 page full-colour catalogue, which included product packshots, descriptions and plenty of lifestyle photography. Experience from North America also meant that the Catalogue included the supplier and brand logos for each product, and, where permitted by the supplier, a price comparison to the recommended retail price. Suppliers negotiated for space in the catalogue and could obtain more space by offering extra buying discounts. View example page spreads from the Shoppers World Catalogue.
The initial business plan recognized that it would take 100 outlets to achieve a full economy of scale and start turning a significant profit.
Fourteen stores were opened. Their performance exceeded expectations. However limited funds restricted the pace of further expansion.
To maintain momentum, further openings were achieved by taking on under-performing Woolworth stores and surplus space in larger High Street branches. This contrasted with Argos, which targeted its openings with care and precision.
The shop-within-a-shop approach led to tensions between Shoppers World and Woolworth staff. Some of the range was duplicated between the two chains. Canny shoppers sound found they could get help from Woolworth staff, before heading to the 'no frills' Catalogue Shop for a saving of up to 20%!
At Huddersfield (left) they did not even have to go out of the door or take the stairs, as Shoppers World occupied the back wall of the ground floor of the Woolworth store.
To their credit, despite a tough economy and competing initiatives, the Board remained resolute. It held faith with Shoppers World and continued to refine and improve the format. By 1982 the catalogue operation had forty-five outlets. Tight control of costs even helped it to generate a small net profit for the first time that year.
But events intervened. Lacklustre trading performance, particularly in the parent company's US Woolco stores, led to the sale of the controlling interest in the British Woolworth to a consortium. One of the first actions of the new owners was to close the 'non-core' businesses as part of a rationalisation. Shoppers World was the first casualty. It was summarily closed, with many of its assets sold cheaply to Argos. To sweeten the deal, the competitor was also allowed to cherry-pick a group of freehold Woolworth stores.
Argos later faced competition from a similar venture, launched by Littlewoods. Index Catalogue Stores operated in a mix of freestanding premises and shops within shops, and built a strong customer base. When Littlewoods decided to move on-line, Argos was able to pick up another rival. The chain has also benefitted from the closure of Woolworths' High Street stores. It is probably no accident that a number of their senior people started their careers at Woolies.
The management buy-out of 1982 also put paid to the joint development arrangement with Woolco Catalogue Stores in Canada. Shortly after the British sale was agreed, the Canadian firm dropped its catalogue store format, converting some of the branches to become compact Woolworth stores and closing the rest. Today, without the Woolworths Museum, you would struggle to find evidence on the Internet that the 17 strong Canadian venture and the larger British operation ever existed. Their contribution to retail history would be lost. As with many Woolworth ventures of the era, after all the pain others got the gain.
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