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Woolworths was once a staple on Kent’s high streets and it’s memory lives on

Take a stroll around many town centres in the county today and the absence of one retailer is still keenly felt.

Woolworths was once the store we all imagined would last forever.

Woolworths...gone but not forgotten
Woolworths...gone but not forgotten

From records to toys, clothes to cigarettes, books to bulbs (of both the garden and light variety) and photo booths to pick ‘n’ mix, the chances are Woolies would have it.

It was a place of reassurance, part of the very fabric of our communities; a place we grew up alongside – our changing tastes reflected in its offering.

In a world where we once all clamoured for our town centres to be awash with chain stores with which we were familiar, it became a pillar of reliability. Did you ever know anyone who didn’t – at least begrudgingly – like it?

‘But they sell all that sort of stuff in a supermarket,’ I hear today’s youngsters cry. True, but back then they didn’t. Back then you went to a supermarket for your groceries and headed into your high street for everything else.

It was an equitable distribution of goods which kept our town centres thriving and kept a steady flow of customers heading into supermarkets. But then, of course, they got greedy.

The old Woolworths store in Folkestone. Picture: Lee Walker
The old Woolworths store in Folkestone. Picture: Lee Walker

Supermarkets decided they wanted to be all things to all people and they went big.

Suddenly they started selling everything Woolworths did but at lower prices. A few ‘loss leaders’ may have seen them lose a few quid on the latest CD, but they gambled on us all then spending more while we were there. Which, of course, we did.

Now we didn’t have to bother paying to park in a town centre, we just drove to the latest ginormous out-of-town supermarket and got everything we could possibly want in one place. Many even did pick ‘n’ mix.

The balance was tipped and the high street started a decline which has seen its focus forced to switch from retail centre to coffee and charity shop central.

By the very first days of 2009 the Woolworths empire was but a memory. No-one under 14 today will have ever set foot inside one. Chances are the majority of 20-year-olds will have only the sketchiest memory of the once all-powerful chain.

Would Woolworths survive if revived? Probably not...
Would Woolworths survive if revived? Probably not...

Even today many still mourn its loss. But, as with all commercial endeavours, the reality is that it didn’t turn its back on us – we turned on it.

We stopped spending there and you cannot support a huge chain of stores on supermarket left-overs. Not anymore.

It’s easy, of course, to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. In truth, by those early weeks of 2009, it had long since lost its clout with the increasing emergence of online shopping putting further pressure on its already dated offering. Would it survive if brought back today? Sadly, it’s hard to see how it could.

But the spectre of Woolies lurks around every corner.

I cannot, I am sure, be the only person to still associate our town and city centres by where Woolworths used to be. It was the one place everyone could reference – its big, bright red lettering making it as much a landmark than a mere shop. Who didn’t meet their friends outside it as a fail safe rendezvous point?

Poundland...all well and good, but it's not quite the same is it?
Poundland...all well and good, but it's not quite the same is it?

The fact its stores were once large sprawling outlets – a factor which no doubt played a part in its death throes – meant there were limited retailers who could take over the premises once left empty. And they tended to be of the discount shop persuasion.

My heart rather sinks when where once Woolworths stood is today a pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap B&M or a Poundland. I have no issue with the stores themselves, but they don’t have the same kudos as Woolies once had.

We’re unlikely, for example, to call Poundland ‘Poundy’ (perhaps people already do, for all I know) or, indeed still bang on about the brand in 20 years if it stopped trading today.

The old Woolworths store in Margate pays tribute to its heritage despite its change in use
The old Woolworths store in Margate pays tribute to its heritage despite its change in use

But Woolworths’ legacy hasn’t completely left the county.

Take a trip to Margate and the store it once occupied has even re-applied the Woolworths lettering to its exterior. It knew it could never escape it’s shadow.

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