The summer of the comeback

Image courtesy of Dave van Hulsteyn

This is the summer of the comeback. Blur are back, Oasis are back, Abba have been approached to take part in a tribute to Wako Jacko and Glastonbury almost saw Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young harmonise with each other once more. And just six months after Woolworths finally threw in the towel and swore never to play live again it too is back, although the performance is entirely online now.

Having bought the brand name from the receivers, Shop Direct has relaunched Woolworths online and declared, through a variety of newer and older media that it is ‘now playing’.
Now I have to admit to being more than a little bit cynical when they first announced they had bought the brand and were going to bring it back. For me Woolworths seemed a retailer that had lost the plot, lost any idea of the role it played in people’s lives and so justly lost the will to live. And its comeback seemed the worst kind of nostalgia marketing, more tribute band than legendary reunion. However, I’m not so sure now, the new Woolworths seems really rather good.
More than that, the launch comes at the perfect time, offering people sunny optimism and the comfort of a well loved brand at a time when people are feeling more than a little pessimistic. They have not only brought Ladybird children’s clothes back, they even sell pick’n’mix on the site, arguably Woolworths signature product.
And in creating an e-commerce only offering Woolworths 2.0 has resolved many of the problems that dogged the 99 year old high street retailer. Not least the effect that selling anything with a bar code on had on peoples understanding of the role of Woolies. This brand is now fairly and squarely about ‘play’ something that was always at the heart of Woolworths but that was monumentally obscured by the industrial-scale fly tipping that characterised their highstreet inventory.
Indeed there must be retail chiefs up and down the land that are green with envy that Woolworths has been able to dump their undifferentiated highstreet and out of town stores in favour of an infinitely smaller but more focused and potentially far more profitable online offering. Retail chiefs that know that they don’t have a hope in hell’s chance of following suit unless they crash the business and call in the receivers. Yet another example of how the City mitigates against bold decision-making in British businesses.
So a brand on the cusp of its centenary has been rescued form the dump bin of retail and given a new lease of life. And yet for all of this one can’t help feeling that the real wonder of Woolies has gone and gone forever. The thing that really delighted people, and especially families, about Woolworth’s extensive retail footprint and eclectic inventory was the one thing that online retailing will never be able to deliver, precisely because it has to deliver. The real spirit of Woolworths was instant gratification. Woolies really came into its own when you absolutely had to have it now not in four days time and only then if you wait in for your order to arrive on your doorstep. The real hole left by Woolworths is really the way it acted as an antidote to the need for premediatated parenting.
And spontenity is of course what e-commerce does so badly, unless the product you want can be delivered down the wire. The internet is unsurpassed at arming consumers with information, price comparisons and recommendations, but it remains prehistoric when it comes to actually getting your hands on the stuff, something that remains the enduring USP of the highstreet.

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7 Replies to “The summer of the comeback”

  1. I’m guessing they were just pissed off after Sainsbury and M&S did identical centenary ads… and Woolies wanted to make their claim for having launched the Avocado

  2. I am rather pleased you have picked this up Richard as I have had musings about this recently. I have long suspected that many of us have an emotionally charged guilty pleasure associated with Woolies – a bit like our fondness for Bruce Forsyth or Boney M. Pure nostalgic warmth that seems to defy fiscal logic possibly. I see this rather eccentric store as being as essential an ingredient in our historical cultural soup as Alf Garnett, SHE magazine, 3 ducks on the wall and knitted toilet roll covers with dolls in them.
    It was literally the only outlet where you could purchase a kettle, some string, a Rolf Harris print, a Jim Reeves CD and a bag full of only the purple ones from Quality Street for under 2 quid. That’s not industrial fly tipping – that’s potentially the best example of Anderson’s Long Tail in action you’ll ever see!
    And so personally Richard I think you are looking in the wrong place here with the issue of immediacy of the online thing as a ‘la cause failure’. You see the thing that makes it so hard to predict with any certainty what the British will take to their bosom, is their overwhelming talent for forgiving those that are in some way flawed but possess the ability to make us laugh – most notably through the ‘arched irony window’.
    I love the fact as you point out that other retailers would chop their finance directors cock off to be rid of the debt and cashflow problems right now as the high street isn’t a pretty place (especially in Croydon but that’s another point altogether). 70% of the retail stores that Woolies had are still empty right now – online it seems is the way forward. And I would have a bet that this Lazarus moment will be celebrated by many with any immediacy of delivery issues being forgotten and forgiven in an orgy of cheap CDs, twine, shoe polish and those purple ones from Quality Street – after all it Woolies – we wouldn’t expect anything more. Plus we should in theory get those amazing Technicolor Xmas ads to let us know it’s Christmas. Can’t wait!

  3. A treasure trove, you reckon they still sell those grey plastic toy soldiers?

  4. Bent rifles and most wouldn’t stand up on a springy carpet as the bases were often wonky and had excess plastic moulding bits that made them unstable. Perfect for lo-fi entertainment for kids. Bring it all back I say :)

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