We all love a bit of retail therapy and the UK high street offers a wealth of choice when it comes to our shopping needs but have you ever wondered about, or indeed even noticed, the disappearance of many of our one-time favourite shops? What happened to these once popular stores? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to find out the fate of just some of them.
Toys “R” Us
Toys “R” Us was an American toy retailer founded in 1948 by Charles Lazarus. The company had not had an annual profit since 2013.
Hamleys, Woolworths and Hawkins Bazaar all suffered from the onslaught of internet shopping, plus the discounters and supermarkets before them, but Toys R Us didn’t learn from their example. On 14 March 2018, that all Toys “R” Us stores in the United Kingdom would close.
Whether you were in need of the latest 12 inch hit record, or suddenly found yourself with a sweet tooth, a room in need of a lick of paint, the latest kitchen gadget or reasonably priced clothes and toys for the kids, not to mention garden furniture and pot plants, bedding and a whole host of other household goodies, then Woolworths was the go to store. All your needs under one roof.
Founded in America in 1878 by Frank Winfield Woolworth in the form of “Woolworth’s great five cent store”, Woolies as it affectionately came to be known, was the first shop to allow the public to handle the merchandise prior to purchasing it.
The store was extremely popular for many years on both sides of the pond but due to increasing competition on the ever changing high street, the store found itself in trouble and closed for business in January 2009. The final branch to close its doors was in Glasgow with the loss of over 30,000 jobs overall.
Talk of reviving the store have as yet not come into fruition.
Founded in 1841 by German brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, C&A started out as a Dutch textile company. In 1906 Clemens’s son begun discounting in Amsterdam and by 1910 he had ten stores across the Netherlands.
The company went on to become a major retailer on the UK high street and also began opening out of town stores, chiefly selling shoes and clothing for men, women and children.
In 2000 the company announced it was to close its UK stores due to stiff competition from the likes of Next, Gap, Matalan and supermarket clothing lines. This, combined with ever increasing high street rental costs and the accusation that it had failed to keep abreast of the latest fashion trends, saw the last stores in Hounslow West London and Bradford close their doors to UK shoppers in May 2001, sending 4800 workers to the dole queues.
Radio Rentals was one of those stores where many families went to hire out radios and subsequently television sets for their homes.
The first shop was opened in a Brighton backstreet in the 1930s by Percy Perring-Thoms and offered customers the opportunity to pay weekly for radios. They began hiring out TVs when they too became popular and later still video recorders and even washing machines, as such items were very expensive for most people to buy outright up until the 1980s when electronic items and the parts required for them became much cheaper.
The brand still operates in Australia and New Zealand.
Founded in Merseyside in the latter part of the nineteenth century, this well-known butcher shop had at its peak 1400 shops in the UK by 1997.
Fresh meat and a friendly personal service was much appreciated back in the day when shoppers went to several different shops to purchase specific items but this chain could not sustain itself with the ever increasing competition from the upcoming supermarkets, who began to offer pre-packed cuts of fresh and frozen meat at lower prices and shoppers found they could go to one place for all their grocery needs. Consumers also began to shy away from red meat in far greater numbers, preferring to opt for poultry instead.
The chain went into administration in 2006 and with it, the family butcher shop with its saw-dusted floors became pretty much a thing of the past.
Although there has been a return of the butcher shop in recent years, these outlets now tend to cater to a niche market, rather than that which Dewhurst once commanded.
This once hugely popular arty card, gift and stationary shop was a dominant presence on the high street by the 1970s with twenty UK outlets. The first store opened its doors in upmarket Hampstead in North London and by the mid-1990s the chain had increased its number to 165 stores.
Perhaps best remembered for its cheeky pin-up poster of a young lady playing tennis whilst baring her bottom in 1976 and later a bare chested muscular denim clad hunk holding a baby, the shop had a large customer base until it too fell prey to the large supermarkets, who began to sell similar items. Mostly through, the chain was massively hit by the growing trend in online card purchases, were customers were invited to personalise their own cards and gifts. Added to this, once again surging high street rents put the final nail in the company’s coffin.
After trading for over fifty years, Athena ceased to be on the UK high street in 2014 when its Exeter branch in Devon closed down.
Athena now operates solely online. Sadly, it no longer offers prints of the iconic 1970s tennis playing lady.
You probably bought your first single here and it almost seems like a distant memory now, but it wasn’t that long ago that you’d find Our Price on most High Streets.
Our Price first launched in 1971 by Gary Nesbitt, Edward Stollins and Mike Isaacs. Their first store was located in London’s Finchley Road. Until 1976, the first six stores were branded The Tape Revolution. From 1976, the up-start chain re-branded to Our Price and went on to own hundreds of shops around the UK.
By the mid-90s some big-business buyout shenanigans involving WH Smith and Virgin, was the beginning of the end for the chain. Stores began to vanish and the brand was finally changed to VShops which were all but gone by 2013.
Pre Amazon and Netflix, this was the place to go for a cheap night in with the latest film release or an old favourite on video and subsequently DVD, you could even grab a bumper bag of popcorn to munch as you curled up on the sofa for that Friday night in experience.
The first store was opened across the pond in Dallas Texas in 1985 by one David Cook, renting out videos on a nightly basis.
A 1987, a big court case win against games giant Nintendo saw Blockbuster go on to hire out increasingly popular games titles too.
The chain enjoyed much success until the growing trend toward the online streaming of films became more and more popular, with Netflix and Redbox’s growing success causing the company to finally file for bankruptcy in 2010.
There remain a handful of franchise stores scattered across the US but Blockbusters has now vanished from the British high street.
There was a definitely something about leisurely browsing through row upon row of records, tapes, videos and later CDs and DVDs on a Saturday afternoon at the UKs last remaining record shop. A certain therapeutic experience could be had from such an exercise and many of us will recall with some degree of nostalgia spending a portion of our first pay packets on the purchase of our very first record or the latest number one hit at HMV.
Founded in London’s Oxford Street in the summer of 1921, HMV was the last of the big record shops to fall, with its major competitors Tower Records, Our Price and Virgin Records having already fallen by the wayside.
Easily recognisable by the famous logo of Nipper the Jack Russell Terror seated beside a gramophone, HMV was a massive presence on British, Irish, Canadian and even Hong Kong high streets.
Another victim of online gaming and streaming and failing to keep up with ever increasing technology and customer requirements, the Irish stores were the first to close in February 2013, with UK branches quickly following suit from March of the same year when the company’s mounting debts were purchased from its creditors by restructuring company Hilco.
HMV’s flagship store at 363 Oxford street; the world’s largest record store, reopened in 2013 and although a handful of other stores were also saved following the Hilco takeover, the company now chiefly operates with success online; many would argue it should have made that move long before it did but as a high street presence it is now all but gone and with it the end of an era.
His Masters Voice is now sadly somewhat subdued.
Freeman Hardy Willis
Many moons ago when a new pair of shoes was required mum would take the kids to the local shoe shop, one of which was the well-known Freeman Hardy Willis. All they sold was footwear and several pairs would be tried on for size before the final all important purchase was made. Although some shoe shops do remain, they are no longer the first port of call for many of us, with most clothing retailers, supermarkets and online shoe shopping options now widely available.
Established in 1875, Freeman Hardy Willis took its name from three individuals employed by the company, Russian shoemaker Alfred Willis being one of them. The company went on to purchase competitors Dolcis and Lilly and Skinner in later years and had branches in cities UK wide but by the early 90s big changes were afoot, with subsidiary company The British Shoe Corporation converting many of the chain’s stores to Hush Puppies branches, with those remaining coming into the ownership of entrepreneur Stephen Hinchliffe. However, after just one year he was found to have illegally obtained loans to purchase the stores and was jailed for his deception. As a result, by 1996 Freeman Hardy Willis had ceased to be.
The remaining 44 shops were bought up by rival company Stead and Simpson, which itself went on to be bought by budget shoe chain Shoe Zone.
The Ikea of its day, those of us of a certain age will certainly remember the out of town MFI flat pack furniture shops. Mullard Furniture Industries was founded by British business partners Noel Lister and Donald Searle, who had previously traded in wartime surplus goods. The maiden name of Searle’s wife provided the company with its name, with the first store opening its doors in 1964
In 1971 the chain became a public limited company known as the MFI Group and went on to enter into a brief partnership with Asda in 1985 and subsequently Schreiber Furniture. However, following concerns about the future of the company Asda was quick to sever its ties.
Over the course of the years the MFI Group experienced serious financial difficulties and the frequency and length of their sales came under much criticism, as well as the discovery that many, if not most of their supposed sale kitchens had not been previously sold at stated pre-sale prices at all, in fact it became a bit of a running joke, so much so that when stating an intended trip to the store the question “have they got a sale on?” would arise and advertising slogans such as “Prices too good to last” were said to mislead customers. Such was the situation that the company was among the first to be investigated by BBC consumer show Watchdog, who were unceremoniously evicted from a branch when they arrived to look into the company’s behaviour.
Although the expansion of Swedish furniture chain IKEA and surprising growing competition from the likes of B&Q did not stop MFI form purchasing the Sofa Workshop in 2002, by the latter part of 2006 the company was in big trouble and was purchased for just £1 by Merchant Credit Partners, changing the name to Galiform. Big hitter Argos went on to become Britain’s largest retailer of furniture as of 2006.
This store started out as a football betting company in Liverpool in 1923. Well remembered no doubt for its weekly football pools where punters could have a weekly flutter on the outcome of top level footie matches in the UK, with the potential to win large sums of life changing cash by posting off their pools coupons and it can still be entered online.
Littlewoods went on to add another string to its bow, enjoying success in the mail order catalogue business, offering everything from clothes and toys to household goods.
In 1937 the company expanded further, opening its first high street shop, encompassing some 22,000 stores at the height of its success and by 1982 was the biggest family owned concern in Britain.
However, their success was not to endure and by the mid-90s Littlewoods began closing its shops when growing online shopping trends began to impact heavily on the chain. The company was sold off in 2002 and subsequently merged with onetime rival Kay’s Catalogues to later become the Shop Direct Group. Rival catalogue shop Index underwent a similar demise and Kays too has now ceased to be. Competitor catalogue store Argos appears to have weathered the storm, tapping into the online market early on and as a result, remains a dominant feature of the UK high street.