Updated: Oct 7
I bloody loved Woolies.
The Woolies in Rotherham was iconic. It had 3 entrances including the one out the back, it was the first place to go for all sorts of things..... but Actually, I can't remember anything that I went there specifically for, apart from pick and mix sweets, or to arse around in the photo booth with my mates.
Like many of us though, I grew up visiting our favorite high-street shops, such as Woolworths and Wilko, for everything from pick n mix to stationary to home goods. However, in the wake of the digital age, firstly Woolworth struggled to keep up with consumer demands, eventually leading to their downfall. Then Wilko, who to be fair had a stay of execution a few years back, eventually succumbed to consumer enlightenment in 2022, collapsing into a heaped mess in 2023.
This post, was intended to examine what went wrong at Wilko, ultimately drawing comparisons with Woolworths, and examining what it takes for any business to stay relevant in today's ever-changing marketplace.
This is me arsing about in Woolies photo booth circa 1985... didn't we all do this ?
Oh, Wilko, where did it all go wrong? Once a beloved British retailer, Wilko has faced its fair share of hardships over the years. From staff cuts to store closures, the company has struggled to keep up with the changing retail landscape. So what happened? What went wrong at Wilko and what were the factors that may have contributed to the company's decline.
It's no secret that the retail industry is in the midst of a major transformation. With the rise of e-commerce and changing consumer habits, many bricks-and-mortar retailers are struggling to adapt. Wilko was no exception. While the company has managed to stay afloat in the face of adversity, it's been unable to recapture its former glory.
One of the key issues Wilko faced, is its outdated business model. For so long, the company relied on its stores as the primary source of revenue, yet for me, its lack of innovation within those stores became more and more apparent. While other retailers seemed to be listening to consumers and experimenting with new store formats and customer experiences, Wilko remained stagnant. As a result, the company lost out on opportunities to attract new customers and engage its existing ones. In a world where consumers are constantly bombarded with new options, Wilko's relentless pursuit of average, and perceived apathy toward innovation and experimentation was a major flaw. I am not talking about mystery shoppers ticking one dimensional vanilla experience surveys here, I mean really listening to consumer needs - and engaging in such a way to get backsides off sofas and into stores.
You know, in the past - aiming for average was ok. 'Standard' was what was expected. In the past the retailer set the rules for the consumer to follow, and then measured their success by naval gazing - it is no wonder so many thought they were brilliantly satisfying consumer demand. They would be ignorant of the truth that consumer insight cannot be achieved by aligning with self set low expectations, then asking the customer to measure how well you achieved that.
With the rise of online shopping, average and standard stores are simply no longer good enough. Shopping became easy and convenient, the whole availability of shopping became a none issue. As a result product quality and expertise became the
issue. The retailer in this space became more relevant by nature. No longer did the public need convenient bricks and mortar, because the the time was saved by the ease of shopping online. Wilko struggled to keep up. The company's slow adoption of e-commerce platforms and limited online offering put it at a severe disadvantage in an increasingly digital world. Especially as Wilko operate in a multi-specialist space. Along side Woolworths and WHSmith, this space (up to the 1990s, before online shopping, and as lives got busier, and convenience was key) - up to then this space was king. But we, the great unwashed public, in the late 1990s and into the early millennium - we became more discerning. The internet opened our eyes to a whole new cyberspace of options. We became more choosy. Inevitably, the public became more experimental on quality and experience, rather than being purely reliant on a price based convenience store model.
Then into the new millenium, what also hasn't helped is the savagery in the sector that Wilko, and before them Woolworth operated in. For years now Wilko have been getting completely shafted in their own back yard, by relative newcomers like B&M, Home Bargains, Poundland - even the middle aisle at Aldi and Lidl have had their market share. Discounting to the extreme on core product became the norm, and Wilko became a victim. In its genuine wisdom, Wilko decided to improve quality in order to stand apart, relying on their strengths, including the trust of a good family name to drag them through. Sadly though - the only thing going up was price, and simply increasing price, with no discernible improvement in quality is a recipe for disaster in a squeezed price sensitive marketplace, now containing so many predators.
Of course, there were other external factors that contributed to Wilko's decline. One of the biggest challenges facing the retail industry is the uncertainty caused by Brexit. With so much uncertainty surrounding trade and consumer confidence, many retailers have been forced to make tough decisions. For Wilko, sadly, and whether true or not, it feels like they did not have the headspace or money, to innovate, change direction and rebrand their image. To them, this meant closing stores and cutting staff in an effort to improve profitability. Unfortunately, this only ever serves to further alienate customers and further damage reputation. Surely, only a desperate leadership, hell bent on shareholder value or personal wealth attacks the middle of a P&L without changing the operating model to accommodate that decision.
Just like Woolies before, there is no moving forward for Wilko now. The vultures circled and picked at the carcass of this wonderfully traditional high street stalwart.
After a number of rumoured rescue deals failed to materialise, the news broke that budget retail chain B&M has agreed to buy up to 51 Wilko stores, while Poundland is also expected to convert up to 71 Wilko stores.
On Tuesday 12 September 2023, the first Wilko stores began to shut their doors for good. The remaining stores staying open as administrators looked for buyers - amid rumours that Home Bargains and The Range were also in talks about taking on stores. As it turned out, the silver bullet never came. B&M had their pound of flesh, Poundland had theirs. There are more rumours that the brand will continue after a £5m bid to buy Wilko's brand, website and intellectual property from The Range.
But on October 6th 2023, the last Wilko stores, including in Leicester where it all began, closed their shutters for the last time.
The sad obituary would read; here lays Wilko, adorable British institution. Savaged by the vultures of retail, died in a wimpering mess in 2023. They leave behind a lack of focus on innovation, e-commerce, and consumer experiences.
RIP Wilko, give my regards to Woolies.