At the Personnel Today awards night last month, there was a team from Woolworths up for one of the awards. As is usual at these events, everyone clapped their friends enthusiastically, while giving only polite applause to people they didn’t know. But when the Woolworths team was mentioned, there was loud applause, stamping, whistling and a big cheer.
Irish comedian Dara O’Briain, who was MC at the event, said:
Sure, ye might be clapping now but ye didn’t feckn’ shop there did ye?!!
Well, OK, perhaps that’s not exactly what he said but you get the general meaning.
It’s strange the way we mourn the passing of businesses and other facilities that we haven’t used for years. The same thing happens when local pubs and cinemas close down or when bus and train routes are axed. People get misty eyed about such things but ask them when they last used one and the answer is usually sometime in the last century. Long standing shops and pubs have taken on a status similar to that of churches. People who haven’t been to a service for years, and even many of those who call themselves atheists, still feel sad and a bit uneasy when the local church closes and is turned into an All Bar One.
So it is with Woolies. Today, BBC News 24 has a rolling report on its closing down sale, interviewing shoppers who, even though they have walked out with some great bargains, still look terribly sad as they tell the reporter how they used to go to Woolies as kids for the pick-and-mix sweets.
For those of us at a certain age, there are also memories of those interminable That’s-the-wonder-of-a-Woolies-Christmas adverts which we hated but which now seem to epitomise a simpler and more secure time. That Woolies is going down the tubes just before Christmas and as we go into what will probably be the worst recession most of us can remember, seems both poignant and ominous.
In any rational appriasal, Woolworths is just another retail business that failed to notice changing tastes and shopping habits. Over time, it was outmanoevered by its rivals and by new entrants to the market. Like Charles Handy’s frog, it did not notice that the water was gradually heating up until it was too late to jump out. It’s not the first company to go under for these reasons and it won’t be the last. Even without the financial crisis its days would probably have been numbered.
Yet there is still a strange sadness that something which has been a feature of the high street for 99 years should be disappearing. The shop where your grandparents bought Christmas presents for your parents is about to sell its last Christmas cracker and play its last cheesy carol.