Hundred Up: the ninety-ninth year in the High Street
In 2008 over 800 British Woolworths still offered market-beating prices on a wide range of CDs, videos and games, ninety-nine years after the chain had sold its first music sheet in Liverpool.
During the Eighties, as part of the Kingfisher, they had topped the market for chart music and had pioneered the sale of videos.
The parent had secured its supply chain by acquiring the wholesaler Record Merchandisers in 1986, renaming it Entertainment UK. In 1999 it had added VCI Group, a rapidly expanding music and video publisher, which had played a pivotal role in the success in the High Street.
The stores had become a value brand for all the family, with chart, catalogue and budget lines.
By 1999 Kingfisher was a diverse, international group. Progress was derailed by an abortive merger with Asda. The bubble had burst.
After much soul-searching Kingfisher decided to withdraw from the High Street. In 2001 the Superdrug chain was sold privately, while Woolworths, the music and video specialist MVC, Entertainment UK, VCI Group and the leading e-tailer Streets-on-Line floated as Woolworths Group plc.
The CEO set a new strategy for Woolworths, young families, and sold MVC. He built up the Wholesale and Publishing Division, agreeing a joint venture between VCI and the BBC as 2|Entertain, and buying Total Home Entertainment and the wholesaler Bertrams Books. By 2008 the Group supplied three major supermarkets, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons, and much of the High Street, including Zavvi and W.H. Smith.
Entertainment was also important to the High Street stores. It accounted for around twenty percent of the total space and sales turnover.
Ssales of music and video declined rapidly across the globe in the noughties, as shoppers switched to the internet or watched a growing number of TV channels. This led to a price-war.
To maintain its share Woolworths had to drop prices. Chart CDs, which were £12.99 in 2002, sold for just £9.97 by 2007.
High margins on the budget range helped the High Street stores to weather the storm, with initiatives like a 'cheap chart'.
WorthIt! brought a sustained increase in shopper numbers, after five consecutive year-on-year falls.
In introducing WorthIt! as its centenary beckoned, it appeared that the chain had gone full circle. With up to forty original artist tracks on some CDs which sold for £1, the price per song was not a penny higher than on the first Little Marvel Five Inch (12.5cm) 78rpm Gramophone Records of the 1920s. If the price had risen with inflation each album would have been £87!
Ironically Woolworths sold more music and video in 2008 than in any of the previous ninety-years. As in the early days, the unit price was low but the margin was good. WorthIt! had begun to get the stores back on track.
As Entertainment staff attended training sessions in August 2008, they were promised a great release schedule for the hundredth Christmas, and improved availability to maximise sales. They returned to store enthused by what was to come. No-one predicted that the stores had just weeks to live.
The problems stemmed from the wholesale division, which offered its clients extended credit. Fears about a possible default by Zavvi prompted credit insurers to withdraw their cover. It seemed that the new contracts to supply Sainsbury's, W. H. Smith, William Morrison, Zavvi and others made the Group particularly vulnerable to a downturn in the market.
As the cash ran low Woolworths Group Directors tried to secure a top-up from their bankers, but failed. Instead the banks demanded repayment of all their loans, amounting to over £300m. Unable to pay, the Directors were required by law to take the Company into Administration before it became insolvent. It plunged not only Woolworths but Zavvi, W.H. Smith and the supermarkets entertainment offers into chaos. Across the industry DVDs and CDs destined for Christmas stockings became embroiled in contractual disputes between the manufacturers and the Administrator, as efforts were made to find a white knight to save the ailing Stores Group. Just forty-one days after the collapse the stores began to close. For a spell it appeared that the Woolworths name was to be consigned to the pages of a Museum. Fortunately Shop Direct Group stepped forward to take the brand on-line, with a world-class website.
Today you can order CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, Games and Consoles from Woolworths on-line, with the convenience of home delivery on a wide range. It builds on a tradition that began 3,000 miles and 133 years ago. When you shop woolworths.co.uk you follow in the footsteps of five generations. If you haven't visited yet, why not give it a go?
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