A thumbs-up for real stores, but do we want Woolies to return?

A thumbs-up for real stores, but do we want Woolies to return?
Photo credit: image generated by Dall-E

Shoppers in the fashion sector have given a thumbs-up to retailers which offer them a real experience. 


The Guardian: “Primark holds prices steady after Rita Ora helps lift sales.”


Whether or not you’re a fan of the loud and frenetic reality of a trip to Primark, its core consumers are clearly fond of it. In the 16 weeks to 6 January the retailer achieved a 3.8% increase in sales – though it noted that consumers are still “fragile” when it comes to their spending power.


It’s impossible here to ignore Primark’s outlier position on a key retail issue. Aside from a click and collect trial, buying from Primark requires you to go to the shop to look at products. You must interact with other people, try things on and then buy them. That its customers do this, even when they are feeling fragile, is a testament to the appeal of the social and tactile element of the shopping journey. It also illustrates why ‘close to Primark’ is on the wish list of most retailers seeking new store units.


Buying online can be functional, but it isn’t an experience that competes with an afternoon out with friends. Thus, comparing the fortunes of Boohoo – which saw a 17% drop in Christmas sales, despite high inflation – with the success of Primark is a sobering experience.


It also highlights that the retail sector is still finding its feet with the mix of physical and online sales, despite the latter being a fixture for two decades now. Stores are not all old-fashioned dinosaurs as we have been told in the past, but they are still adapting to continued fundamental changes in the ways in which we shop.


Some physical stores certainly need to move faster to adapt to those changes, but if they are still trading then they are clearly still relevant. 


The BBC: “Woolworths could return to British High Streets.”


However, what about retailers which aren’t still trading?


Woolworth – a close relative of the Woolworths chain, which exited the UK market more than a decade ago – is reportedly considering a return to these shores. But do we want it?


The old UK Woolworth’s was a dinosaur. It seemed to attract nostalgic visits for pick and mix sweets, and panic visits as the only local store with a selection of cheap toys when your children were going to a birthday party, and little else. 


When the chain went, other stores very quickly filled those gaps, even if the distinctive Woolworth’s store architecture still identifies former branches to anyone over the age of 40.


If Woolworth were to make a foray into the UK today it would need to offer something new and different to compete. Of course, with our liking for real, live retail experiences, that might result in something truly attractive.