The end for Woolworths, a century-old British retail institution buckling under the weight of the economic crisis, was to move a step closer on Saturday with the closure of a quarter of its stores.
Woolworths’ administrators at the accountancy firm Deloitte have chosen 200 stores, of the 813 nationwide, which will shut their doors for the final time at the end of the day.
The company itself is likely to become one of the most high-profile victims of the global credit crunch and Britain’s economic slowdown unless a buyer materializes before Jan. 5, thereby affecting around 27,000 full and part-time employees.
According to Deloitte, other retailers have expressed interest in acquiring around 300 Woolworths stores, as well as the company’s brand name, meaning it may reappear on Britain’s high street at some point.
The first Woolworths store was opened in Liverpool in 1909, and expanded into a chain of shops selling toys, stationery, magazines and novels.
It filed for administration last month, and, further to Saturday’s total, 200 stores will close on December 30, with 200 more to shut on Jan. 2 and the remainder on Jan. 5.
Deloitte flooded Woolworths stores with an extra 50 million items in the run-up to Christmas in a bid to get rid of existing stock, and storefronts now feature signs displaying a countdown to when they will close, as the company seeks to encourage shoppers.
Though many of the stores set for closure had been virtually cleared, there were bargains to be had — 38-year-old Teresa Stewart managed to buy a box filled with clothes for two pounds (US$2.90) after queueing for nearly half an hour outside the Ipswich branch in eastern England.
“I’ve got so much stuff — there are so many bargains,” said Stewart, a mother of two. “I’ve got some school clothes for my children and various other bits and pieces. It’s sad to see Woolworths go.”
Woolworths’s likely closure comes amid a bleak climate for British retailers, with three well-known stores going under within 24 hours earlier this week: high street music retailer Zavvi, which employs more than 3,000 people; luxury tea-sellers Whittard; and menswear retailer Officers Club.
Analysts have speculated that between 10 and 15 national and regional chains could collapse by the end of next month.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has warned that a last-minute surge in shoppers visiting stores was unlikely to help shops struggling under the weight of the economic downturn, which is expected to be confirmed as a recession early next year.
Official figures showed a slight increase in year-on-year sales last month, but BRC figures showed total sales fell by 0.4 percent, and the group warned that this month’s numbers “won’t be pretty.”
Bargain-hunting Britons thronged to retail centers across the country on Friday, though, as stores offered discounts of up to 90 percent for the traditional post-Christmas sales.
In London’s Oxford Street, all but two shops were open on what is officially a national holiday — a situation the New West End Company, which manages the capital’s main shopping streets, said was unprecedented.
At the Bluewater shopping center in Kent, southeast England, around 100,000 shoppers were estimated to have visited.