The thing about Woolworth that I find most wondrous is that they have hung on for so long.  Mind you, they have had a few close shaves along the way.  For as long as I can remember, Woolies have been struggling for a “reason for being” and failing miserably.  Let’s face it, they haven’t done anything original since penny and sixpence stores and pick n’ mix sweets, although they were still doing a great job of winding it up at Xmas as recently as the eighties, as this commercial shows (Anita Harris – sigh ).  However, if you happened to wander into a Woolworth lately (while looking for the loo or something!) you’ll have been greeted by a scene that looked like a stunt from The Apprentice – like Alan Sugar had given a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears graduates a biggish space and asked them to fill it quickly with “stuff”.

I’m sadder about MFI, another UK casualty of the recession, who, though struggling for almost as long as Woolies to find its place, at least seemed to have a strategy.  It just didn’t work, but the reality is that like a load of other retailers who have been teetering on the edge for a while and will undoubtedly be pushed over by the current economic situation, simply, neither has been good enough for a long time.

What we are witnessing right now is Darwinism – adapt or die!  Its not just about retailing, its about business generally.  Sure, we have too many retailers and more retail parks and shopping centres than is healthy, so we certainly won’t miss a few, but we have too much of everything, that’s the problem, especially when so many businesses have no right to be in business anyway.

I work hard with my clients to develop real uniqueness.  I don’t mean the kind of contrived, useless differences that most organisations promote.  I mean a positive, tangible, real benefit that they offer their customers that nobody else does, and its been a point of constant frustration to me that people have continued to be gullible enough to swallow the empty promises fed to them by organisations.  The key question that I ask my clients is “how will you transform your customers lives?” – well what other excuse would they have for trading?  Anyway, excuse my smugness, but the fact that tough economic times have prompted consumers to look beneath the veneers and question the promises made to them, only means that by and large, we’ll be filtering out the dross.

When the grim receiver finally knocks on their door, these failing businesses can’t claim that they were taken by surprise either.  Although I am sure a few will.  The writing has been on the wall for most of them for decades, its just that, usually because the people running them didn’t have any ideas, they chose to just milk the situation for as long as they could and hope to have retired before the shit hit the fan.  Some of them made it and others haven’t, but none of them would still be a round had the artificial affluence we have all enjoyed over the years, not camouflaged their bad practices and disguised their dreadful performance.  For instance, I’m told that after gaining independence from the US operation Woolworth sold its property and leased it back at some ridiculously lousy deal!  Now, if marketing is about leveraging resources someone really blew it there!

It used to be really trendy to own a Renault 5 in Paris.  French role models drove customised 5s just as the Beatles, Roy Wood and endless other UK pop icons drove Wood and Picket Minis and they were practical and useful.  The fact that today suburban Moms “need” an SUV rather than a Smart car to take the kids a hundred yards down the road to school, is just the product of manipulation by auto-manufacturers whose true measurement of success, despite their protests, is clearly the weight of tin and plastic they manage to get onto the streets.  We are in this mess, not because operators in every sector have devoted themselves for years to persuading us to buy stuff that we don’t really need, I can live with that.  What gets my goat is that so much of this stuff we are gullible and insecure enough to covet is utterly useless!

The up side of all this is that the good guys, though tested like everyone else, will still be around and hopefully, buoyed by the success of their past dedication to honesty, transparency, innovation and hard-work, they’ll be giving us new ideas and initiatives to satisfy our genuine needs and distance them from the masses.  While the big auto makers try to blackmail the US government into subsidising their past inflexibility, self-interest, lack of vision and sharp practices and give them license to do more of the same and banks in the UK and elsewhere try to wriggle of the hook of accountability that their recent handouts have caught them with, there are real opportunities and hopefully recognition by consumers for unsung heroes like Robert Q Riley Enterprises, who are taking a new route to eco-friendly transport with build-it-yourself solutions.

I don’t mind at all that this may be the end of life as we know it.  I for one will welcome a few real values and a world where personal worth is measured in something other than the volume of natural resources destroyed in a lifetime.  All of this is just another challenge to real marketers with balls and initiative.  It doesn’t mean that we’ll have no shops, cars, or the multitude of other stuff we have become used to, just that those we will have are relevent, responsible and efficient.

Michael Weaver
December 4, 2008

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