Woolies goes online - and it still has pic'n'mix!

Woolworths is reborn online. Fancy the surreal experience of buying penny sweets over the internet?

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Six months after Woolworths breathed its last on the high street, the retailer has been given a new lease of life online, courtesy of Littlewoods-owned Shop Direct. Woolworths.co.uk has just started trading as a fully-fledged e-tailer, with many of its weird and wonderful offerings now available online – including its legendary pic’n’mix, believe it or not. Woolies may have lost its way on the high street, but given that 20,000 people signed up to the new site within hours of its launch, the venerable brand clearly still has plenty of fans. The question is: can it keep them?

Shop Direct clearly thinks so. The group, part of the Barclay brothers empire, bought the rights to the brand from the administrators just 20 short weeks ago. In true web 2.0-style, it’s since been inviting feedback from its users as to what it should sell. Happily, the results appear to coincide with what Woolies’ high-street tat emporia used to sell, including toys, kidswear, electrical goods and homeware. There’s also a separate entertainment store, selling videogames, music and DVDs, and even a party shop, where you’ll find the virtual pic’n’mix counter (along with all sorts of other party paraphernalia).

For a brand that struggled on the high street by trying to be all things to all men (plus women and children), you’ll notice from the above list that there doesn’t seem to have been a noticeable shift in strategy. Woolies online sells just as big a mix of stuff as the shops did. But whereas on the high street there’s some advantage to be gained from having everything under one roof, that doesn’t really apply on the internet, where it’s perfectly easy to go and buy your CDs from any one of 100 other sites.

On the other hand, Woolies no longer faces the logistical challenge of getting all this stuff to its shops – instead it can sit in a warehouse somewhere until it needs to be shipped out. Equally it doesn’t have to worry about the costs of renting prime high street sites any more, and can exist on a skeleton staff – so its cost base will be significantly lower. And some of its online tricks are quite fun, like the option to virtually shake penny sweets into a virtual bag (although you do have to pay £1.50 postage, which doesn’t really chime with the ‘penny sweets’ ethos).

But ultimately, the question remains: will it be able to build a significant customer base online? Is its offering sufficiently distinctive to flourish in such a crowded marketplace? There’s clearly a lot of residual goodwill towards the Woolies brand, particularly among people of a certain age who remember its salad days. But whether this will be enough to sustain an online business over time is debatable. Frankly, we’ll believe it when we see it.

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