New stores for old

Earlier this month, I headed off into deepest Dorset to meet some modern retailers drawing on their sector heritage. My first visit was one that I’ve promised myself for ages: store manager Claire Robertson hit the headlines in early 2009 when, refusing to accept that her Dorchester branch of Woolworths should close forever, she found a backer for her store, rebranded it “Wellworths”, and has since gone from strength to strength.  

Churlishly, the owners of the old Woolworths brand leant on her, forcing a brand change to “Wellchester”, but one’s first thought on entering the prime pitch store is: “this is just like Woolies”—except that it isn’t. Robertson has held on to the products and services most associated with the old high street staple, but has expanded to fill local customers’ demands for computer accessories, pictures and frames, convenience food and a range of £1 goods. In her single store, she’s been able to move the Woolworths experience forward, untrammelled by the layers of fossilised wisdom and experience the chain had accrued—she’s now planning an online store.

About 20 miles north, in the agreeable town of Sherborne, a new bookshop has opened, and this too has a pedigree. Wayne Winstone was for many years one of the best-known members of the Ottakars team, driving its children’s offer to national success. Now, he’s opened his own bookshop, and with James Heneage among the dignitaries at the opening, there was a sense here as well of something once very good, something lost, being reinvented for today.

Winstone’s Books inevitably carries the flavour of a small Ottakars, but with a clean, contemporary store design, a pocket café in the front window, and a gorgeous children’s section, it takes the old story forward to the present. Winstone is a thoroughly committed bookman and—like Wellchester—recognises that for bricks and mortar retailing to thrive in the connected world, stores’ ranges, services and events need to be carefully tailored to meet and exceed local expectations.  

Economies of scale can drive efficiencies, but destroy many singular opportunities; as Claire Robertson observed, Woolworths’ Dorchester and Weymouth stores used to offer practically identical merchandise, despite having very different clientele. Sherborne is a historic market town, strongly influenced by its public schools (John le Carré was educated there), and with an affluent community and robust tourist trade. In any chain, it would be graded and classified with a hundred others, and the smartest inventory management system would fail to replicate the offer that Winstone’s can provide.  

Despite the challenges attendant on physical retailing, I believe that the right indies—flexible, imaginative, connected to their communities—can thrive. This applies to variety stores like Wellchester, to fashion retailers, shoe shops and home décor stores . . . and, perhaps most of all, to bookshops. 

Good luck to Winstone’s, and to anyone else taking the plunge with a new store this year.