In which even the sheep and wolf couldn't save it.

Printed 04/12/08.

I would never profess to be any kind of oracle*, but sometimes I wonder why I haven’t yet been hired as a retail business consultant. Lack of qualifications, spreadsheet knowledge, and little business cards saying ‘Lauren Bravo – retail business consultant and part-time nuclear technician’ aside, the fact stands that nobody criticises the high street better than me. I am a tip-top high-street criticiser. And for years, YEARS now, I’ve been vocalising my concern for Woolworths.

It only stood to reason that as a chain whose primary market was the discerning Pick’n’Mix consumer, Woollies’ salad days were numbered. As ‘90s children back in the golden age of tooth rot, we regarded it as a mecca for all that was good, cheap, and came in a neon shade unknown to nature. If it oozed, fizzed, popped, glowed or caused migraines, Woolworths had it and we bought it by the bucketload. This was a simpler time, time when cassette tape singles were 99p in the first week of release. So the giddy Saturday sugar binge was set to a soundtrack of the era’s best poptastic mastery and finished off with a dramatic reading of the Mizz problem page to all gathered at the Montague Street bandstand (“Dear Sally. My crush saw me with spinach in my braces! Will I ever find love? Red-faced of Rotherham, aged 12”).

Kids today just wouldn’t understand the simple pleasure of pink foam shrimps, B*Witched on your walkman and a nice flowchart called “Which Hollyoaks babe would you be?”. They’re all downloading Sigur Rós and reading Private Eye and eating M&S Thai chicken noodle salads like miniature grown-ups. I’m pretty sure even the shoplifters have gone upmarket – it’s been years since I’ve witnessed anyone sprinting past security with a toaster up their puffa jacket.

It doesn’t help that all Woolworths stores have in recent years taken on the appearance of giant bus shelters, the kind of places you expect to reach into the bottom of the half-off bin to find a trembling pensioner clutching a Daniel O’Donnel album she was originally trying to buy in 1984. My local branch in Archway is a particularly grubby specimen, the kind I always expect to have ‘As Featured on Crimewatch’ on a banner over the door. I want to give the staff hugs, and secretly slip them Waitrose application forms under the counter.

So while the nation reeled this week at the news that the company has gone into administration (did you reel? Are you still reeling? Is anyone entirely sure what reeling actually entails, aside from the vague idea it’ll give you a crick in your neck for several days?), I shook my head sadly and sighed my retail business consultant sigh. Next up, though there isn’t column space enough in the world to go into what they’ve been doing wrong for ten years, will be BHS. Mark my words, they won’t last much longer. Buy all the lilac jersey vest tops and cargo shorts you need now folks, it won’t be around much longer. Oh, you already did? In 1998? Let them know, it’s only kind.

Now, the retail business consultant thingy doesn’t quite stretch to understanding the process of administration, but from what I’ve heard, and this is wonderful, is that we can now BUY Woolworths for £1. £1! It’s true, I googled. That’s only a week’s supply of gummy bootlaces, or Tragedy by Steps with Heartbeat on the B-side. Think of all the giftwrap you would own! You’d never have to buy a greetings card again, you’d have one for every occasion that could ever arise! Fancy a smoothie? Pop to YOUR local Woollies and grab yourself a blender. Or, wait, a pre-made bottle of the stuff, you own those too!

Of course, the lucky bargain-hunter will inherit £300 million of debt along with all the sweeties and fizzy pop. But with the prospect of reviving some childhood nostalgia on the cards, I reckon that’d be pretty easy to overlook in the heat of the moment. As my friend Rich pointed out – “Wouldn’t that be the worst hangover ever? To wake up, think ‘owww, what did I do last night?’, and then realise you accidentally bought Woolworths…”

* Actually I would and regularly do, but following Friday’s, “It’s fairly quiet as house parties go.. I’m sure the neighbours won’t mind a bit” misdemeanour, I’m laying low with my prophesising powers.