Woolworths: 10 years on. Are you still missing its pic ’n’ mix sweets?
Marlene Lever worked at Sudbury’s North Street Woolies for 27 years. Then the company collapsed. When Marlene went, she took her locker with her...
It was 2009 when seemingly-immortal Woolworths, giant of the high street and national treasure, came crashing down.
Marlene, longest-serving staff member at Sudbury, wanted a keepsake. Administrators had been selling everything that moved, including fixtures and fittings, so on her final day it wasn’t hard to snap up the metal box that had served her well.
“I just had to have my locker – I’m thinking of putting plants in it,” Marlene told us 10 years ago.
“It’s very sad. I’m going to miss the camaraderie among the staff. Woolworths is one of those places where you either work for three months as a temp or end up staying for 30 years. I’ve made some good friends.
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“We’ve also survived a few downturns in business, but this time it has happened so quickly. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Not surprising. Marlene had joined Woolies in Coventry, straight from school. At 15 years and nine months old she’d become Woolworth’s youngest supervisor – in the world. “Got an extra 10 shillings for that!”
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She stayed seven years or so. The move to Suffolk came in 1979. When daughter Emma started school, Marlene pulled on the familiar uniform again and joined the Sudbury branch.
And that was that. Until 2008.
The fall was swift. It was the third week of November, 2008, that it became clear Woolworths was staring down the barrel of a gun after struggling for a while.
The credit crunch/financial meltdown obviously hadn’t helped. Rents for the hundreds of stores were challenging and sales falling. Rival online retailing bit at revenues, as did the growing number of cheaper competitors. There was even talk of daft retail practices, such as Woolies stocking more than three-dozen kinds of pencil case.
Woolworths wasn’t just a chain of 800-odd shops. It was heavily involved in the wholesaling of DVDs and CDs, too, and that side hadn’t been going brilliantly. It relied on a goodly flow of money to keep the wheels turning, and that wasn’t always easy to achieve.
The new chief executive sought to revamp Woolworths. His plan would have sold the shops and concentrated on distribution, but it didn’t come to pass.
Less than a month before Christmas 2008, the board decided its only choice was to put Woolworths Group plc into administration. Barring a miracle, its 807 UK shops would go, along with about 27,000 jobs.
On December 11, administrator Deloitte launched closing-down sales. Then, three days before Christmas, it gave dates for when stores would shut for the last time. There was no hanging about.
The list was stark: like a machine-gun rattle. Braintree, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Clacton-on-Sea and Witham would shut on December 27, for instance. Dovercourt and Stowmarket were among branches that would close later, but still wouldn’t see the new year. Just days into 2009, all Woolworths shops would be history – including Beccles, Chelmsford, Colchester, Felixstowe, Hadleigh, Haverhill, Lowestoft, Maldon and Woodbridge.
In the event, some stores closed a bit later than foreseen, but no-one could be under any misapprehension about the fragility of the economy.
Sudbury’s North Street branch, there since 1954, was one of the last to shut. More than 40 jobs went. A sad day for the town grew even darker when Marks & Spencer revealed it planned to close its Simply Food shop next-door.
June French, who had worked in Sudbury Woolies for 20 years, told us a decade ago: “Both my daughters also work for the company – one in Haverhill and one in Ipswich.
“I’ll probably retire, but they’ve got to find work elsewhere. I also feel sorry for the people of Sudbury, who have lost an institution.”
Despite her comments back in 2009 being somewhat “off the top of my head”, Marlene DID put plants in her locker. It stood in the garden of her home near Sudbury.
Ex-customers she bumped into kept asking if she’d done it, so that summer we took pictures to show she had.
That reborn locker lasted about four years. “It rusted completely in the end and the shelving sort of fell in on itself, and it had to go to the scrapyard. But it had looked quite effective,” she said this week.
She had used it for the duration of her 27 years at the Sudbury branch, where it survived a couple of fires. “We lost part of the roof at one time, and firemen had to pump water in. I’m surprised it didn’t get destroyed then,” she laughs.
Luckily, the demise of Woolworths didn’t cause Marlene too many problems. She was already working part-time, looking after a granddaughter on other days, and it was a time of change, anyway.
“My daughter Emma, who also worked for Woolworths, had not long ago had her little boy (in the August) and I said to her ‘Look. You really need to go back to work; I don’t need to work; I’ll leave.’ She said ‘No, no. You’ve been here so long.’ But I said I didn’t mind. As it happened, it was taken out of my hands and everybody left.
“I’m so glad I didn’t leave (voluntarily), because I wouldn’t have got any redundancy pay. Not that it was a lot!”
Marlene didn’t seek another job – husband Derek (who writes computer programs and works from London) suggested they didn’t desperately need to replace the lost income.
Marlene remembers the manager of the M&S food shop coming in to commiserate about the closure. He offered to help the Woolworths staff with work, if he could.
“Somebody came in and said ‘You’ve got a phone call’. He said ‘I’ll be back soon.’” When he returned, he had his own tale of woe: His shop was under threat, too.
After Woolworths went, Emma found another job, and Marlene says many ex-colleagues were taken on by Tesco. Some are still there.
Lots of former workmates came to her 60th birthday party, five years ago, and she keeps in touch with some.
Woolies is never far from her thoughts. Only recently she had to go to the dry cleaners and needed a big bag. She found one in the bedroom. It turned out to be a Woolies relic. “I couldn’t believe it hadn’t disintegrated after 10 years!”
There was one good thing when the business collapsed. Sudbury staff were able to put by any stock they wanted and buy it at rock-bottom prices… and at a staff discount, too.
“I bought all the presents for the 17 grandchildren for about four years – birthdays and Christmas. I had a loft-full,” Marlene laughs.
She was left with just one item: a Bratz landline phone. (Bratz are a fashion-oriented collection of little dolls.) “Everyone uses mobile phones now; nobody wants a (traditional) telephone!”
So, a decade on, how does she reflect on the Woolworth days?
“I loved it. I miss the customers like mad. They still say to me, when I see them in town, ‘Oh, god, we miss Woolies.’ I think everybody does.”
Those we lost
Closed Woolies branches included Beccles, Braintree, Bury St Edmunds, Chelmsford, Clacton-on-Sea, Colchester, Dovercourt, Felixstowe, Hadleigh, Halstead, Haverhill, Ipswich, Lowestoft, Maldon, Newmarket, Saffron Walden, Stowmarket, Sudbury, Witham, Woodbridge