When Woolworths went bust in November 2008, consumers, the media and the retail industry mourned the loss of a British institution.
Among the mourners was Andy Latham, whose career at the retailer had spanned 28 years. However, not one to mope, Latham promptly hatched a plan to resurrect the retailer under a new guise. Using experience gleaned through his ascent from Saturday boy at the Woolworths in Redhill, Surrey, to the chain's head of store and concessions development, Latham opened his own version variety store Alworths in Didcot. Alworths has since expanded into a seven-strong chain, the latest of which opened this week in New Milton.
So why open a new business, based on a failed model, in the middle of a recession? "Everyone asks me that!" laughs Latham.
"Clearly, there was a lot of love for the Woolworths brand, but being on the inside, I knew where it was not as good as it could have been. Alworths stores are uncluttered and easier to shop, products are easier to find, the shop window displays are nicer, the shelves are lower and the products are more aspirational, like a department store-style offer," he says.
"Most importantly, we're doing a lot with the local community. Because Woolworths was such a large business it couldn't cater for local communities. We can and my brief to store managers is to be as in touch with the locals as possible."
For Latham, experience was key in searching out staff to man the fledgling Alworths. Eight of the 15-strong team at the chain's Redhill HQ and 30% of store staff are former Woolies employees.
Given this strong base, he is keen to stick to what Woolworths did best and has no plans to expand into grocery. Alworths' food and drink range is restricted to pic'n'mix, confectionery and impulse lines, allowing the store to focus on gifts, toys, greeting cards, stationery, household essentials and garden items.
"As we're a small business we can make decisions quickly," he says. "I want to keep it lean and mean and able to react quickly to customer needs. One of the key reasons I started up Alworths was because there was a lack of retailers selling toys on the high street. I want to focus on traditional high-street shopping."
Latham has chosen to tailor Alworths' range to the very customers he believes felt the loss of Woolworths most keenly. "We're all about families," he says. "Our core shopper base is mothers popping in after picking up their children from school. After 4pm on weekdays we are really busy."
The next step for Latham is to extend the Alworths estate across the UK. "We're looking for sites all over the place," he says.
"Although all our stores are in the south east at the moment, this is not by plan. It's a national search and we're looking anywhere from the Home Counties to the Lake District and up into Scotland. We aim to have opened 22 stores by Christmas, but there is the potential to at least double this going forward, and go up to as many as 100 in the longer term."