Once loved for its pick ‘n’ mix sweets and bargain prices, Woolworths stores could return to the UK.
In 2009 when its British shops closed after the financial crisis, the brand in Germany, where it is known as Woolworth, was saved by HH Holding.
Current HH Holding chief Roman Heini says the UK is on his “bucket list” of destinations as he seeks to expand internationally.
It comes as Wilko, which filled the gap left by Woolworths, collapsed in 2023.
Mr Heini – who has worked in executive positions in both Aldi and Lidl and has been Woolworth chief executive since 2020 – told trade magazine Retail Week that despite the challenges of a cost-of-living crisis he had the opportunity to “make Woolworth great again”.
Affectionately known as “Woolies”, if the brand were to return to UK High Streets it is unclear how it would be spelt.
Woolworth Germany told the BBC: “The brand name ‘Woolworth’ (without the ‘s’) is owned by us throughout Europe. Should we ever plan to return to the UK, we would scrutinise the naming rights to minimise the risk of confusion. A transfer of rights could help if necessary.”
‘In the mix’
Woolworths originated in the US and operated for 100 years in the UK, having opened its first store in Liverpool in 1909. It had 807 British stores and its closure left more than 27,000 people unemployed.
It suffered from the economic downturn of 2008-09 and from cheaper competitors eating into its market share. Some analysts say it was also not able to keep up with online shopping.
Woolworth Germany said it was “unable to confirm any plans for Woolworth to return to the UK market” but that such a move was not ruled out in principle.
“Britain is on his [Roman Heini’s] bucket list, although nothing is imminent,” a spokesperson said, adding “but it may be in the mix for the mid- or long-term future”.
Its offerings, however, have changed since it was last seen on the High Street. Previously, it was known for its variety of items including children’s clothing brand Ladybird, CDs and confectionery.
Under Mr Heini’s stewardship, Woolworth Germany has pivoted to clothing and homeware, which he says is at “unbeatable prices”.
He told Retail Week that 6,000 of the 10,000 products that Woolworth sells are priced at €3 (£2.57) or below. “To match that online, at least until today, is very difficult, if not impossible,” he said.
But a re-entry would not be without its challenges. Disruption to supply chains because of attacks by Houthi rebels in one of the world’s busiest trade routes in the Red Sea, plus post-pandemic “turmoil” were two of the issues Mr Heini cited as standing in the way of any immediate British revival of the brand.
However, as the collapse of Wilko left some people feeling nostalgic for Woolworths, the firm feels it would be welcome in the UK.
“I don’t know of any brands where the recognition will be as high as it is in Britain, without having any stores,” Mr Heini said.
Woolworth has more than 600 shops, with the majority in Germany but some in Austria and Poland.