Could Woolworths be set for a Lazarus moment? It emerged this weekend that Sir Geoff Mulcahy has spent the last month talking to a group led by former Woolworths MD Tony Page – their plan is to buy up around 200 of the 800 shops left vacant by Woolies’ collapse, and launch a new one-stop-shop retail operation in the style of the defunct pic ‘n’ mix maestros. Mulcahy, who used to run Woolies’ ex-parent Kingfisher, tried to buy 500 of its stores out of administration last year without success – and he clearly still thinks there’s money to be made from the format. Despite some strong evidence to the contrary…
The involvement of Mulcahy, who’s a big hitter in the retail world, is a huge boost for Page’s group. Apparently he already has two-thirds of the £5m+ he's seeking from investors, and he clearly hopes that Mulcahy – who will apparently take the role of non-executive chairman – will encourage a few more deep-pocketed backers to chip in. ‘Sir Geoff can see the same great opportunities in this as myself and my colleagues do,’ said Page. Unfortunately it won’t be able to use the Woolies’ brand (which was sold to the Barclay brothers back in February as part of the fire-sale), so it’s using the ubiquitous Twitter to invite suggestions for a new name. We vote Mullies.
The closure of the last Woolies’ branches on January 6 undoubtedly left a void on the British high street, and provoked plenty of nostalgia. Those with fond memories of buying their first Sonia LP and back-to-school jotters could only look on helplessly as the stores were stripped bare, with even the shelves up for grabs by the eleventh hour. On the other hand, research suggested repeatedly that the Woolies’s brand had been in decline for years, battered by competition from supermarkets and internet stores. The consensus was that it suffered from trying to be a jack of all trades rather than a master of one.
But the general retail format clearly can work. Some of Woolies’ shops, particularly those in prime high street locations, were profitable (the problem was its failure to close the non-performing ones, plus various supply chain issues). And Wellworths, the copycat retail outlet opened by former Woolies manager Claire Robertson in Dorset back in April, has seen sales boom – which, according to Page, has boosted confidence that his new venture will succeed. If he’s managed to convince Mulcahy, he must be doing something right.
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