Top 10 High Street Shops of Yesteryear

How much has your high street changed over the years? How many of these high street shops have a special part in your memory?
Woolworths high street shop black and white photo

Newcastle Libraries CC0 1.0 Universal (CCO 1.0)

Our high streets and high street shops have changed significantly over the decades. Like most things, over time, high streets evolve and reflect the times.

Have high street shops the way we remember them really become a thing of the past?

British high street shops in the 1970s
High Street Newcastle Libraries CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

Spring Chicken’s Top 10 High Street Shops from Yesteryear

Here’s our choice of 10 of the biggest and most influential retailers that have vanished from our high streets over the past decades. Some have gone forever; while some have been reincarnated as online entities.

1. Woolworths

The first Woolworths was opened in Liverpool in 1909 and from that point on became a mainstay of every high street throughout the UK. The convenience and range of products available were a winner for the British public.

Alongside its value for money and almost market-like environment, the retailer went from strength to strength for most of the 20th century. One of the biggest memories and attractions was its Pick’n’Mix counter: a sweet paradise for every child that walked the hallowed retail aisles of Woolies.

To scenes of mourning, Woolworths entered administrations in 2009, a casualty of the financial crisis of 2008 (though it wasn’t officially dissolved until 2015), leading to an extraordinary weekend of ‘everything must go’ sales in its hundreds of shops... can you remember that?

Self-service as Hight Street Shops change forever

2. Safeway

The supermarket chain Safeway opened its first store in 1963 in Bedford. The chain sought to revolutionise what British supermarkets were offering their customers. Under US ownership the offering became varied and was a breath of fresh air to the British consumer.

The consumer was at the forefront, being offered fresh bread from an in-store bakery alongside fish counters and deli counters. All the ideas are directly imported from the successful US retail model. Unfortunately, Safeway could not keep up with the big three of British Supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons and fell by the wayside in 2003, to be purchased by Morrisons.

3. C&A

A mainstay of the British high street since 1922, C&A was perhaps the first to bring affordable ‘fast’ fashion to the high street. However, whilst it thrived for decades and was much loved by the British consumer, the growth of the larger out-of-town retailer parks and the larger supermarkets heavily investing in clothing and fashion saw the demise of C&A.

4. Littlewoods

This Liverpool-born commercial giant grew from a football betting company in 1923 to the largest private company in Europe in the 1980s and the largest family-run business in the UK. Littlewoods employed over 4000 people in its heyday and was a major attraction to any high street.

John Moores Littlewoods had innovated and diversified throughout its lifetime, being one of the first to adapt the catalogue ordering business. However, the online world was just a step too far and Littlewoods was to close its high street doors in 2005. The Very group then bought the name and now operate an unrelated online presence.

High street store including Littlewoods 1970s black and white
Littlewoods Newcastle Libraries CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

5. Wavy Line

The Wavy line was a chain of grocers that was born out of the concern of small independents being put out of business by big chains like Sainsbury's and Tesco. The socialist venture saw these independents group together in order to bulk buy and compete whilst still retaining their local community roots.

It was an admirable and courageous idea that worked for a few years. Sadly, Wavy Line couldn’t weather the onslaught and tragically got pushed off the high street by Tesco Express and Sainsbury's express shops.

6. Bejam

The family-run frozen food retailer managed to see the gap in the market in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Whilst many were saying frozen food would never catch on, the Apthorp family from Stanmore knew better.

Bejam’s grew successfully and was profitable right up until they sold out to their considerably smaller competitor Iceland in 1989. The name Bejam comes from an acronym of the Apthorp family members, Brian, Eric, John, Milly and Marion.

7. Rumbelows

Another collaboration of smaller electrical retailers,  these renamed themselves Rumbelows in 1971 to compete with the big boys like Dixons and Currys. The core of the business was to fall foul of the cheaper cost of electrical importing from the Far East which meant the rental business was an ever-contracting market for the British consumer.

Upon finally closing its doors in 1985 it was revealed that Rumbelows had been losing £12 million per year and had never made a profit in its 24-year lifespan!

8. Owen & Owen

This Liverpool-born drapery department store opened by innovative Welsh man Owen Owen began back in 1868. Owen Owen was one of the first to reward staff loyalty and to consider employee wellbeing as part of the company strategy.

The company was sold to a Canadian retailer in 1985 and finally disappeared from the high street lineup in the noughties after being acquired by Philip Green.

9. Dolcis

Dolcis shoes began life on a street barrow in the mid-19th century. It became one of the favourite high-street shoe retailers by the mid-20 century and was the first port of call for any fashionable young thing right up until the 1990s.

Sadly the 20th century saw a decline in traditional shoe-wearing due to the onset of trainers and the leisure industry. Dolcis still has a small online presence after being acquired and reformed by the Jacobson group in 2012.

10. Debenhams

One of the oldest high street shops to vanish from our high street. Debenhams began back in 1778 in London. In its heyday, it boosted 178 stores in the UK and was the home of an extraordinary array of goods, famous for its value collaborations with designers like Jasper Conran. Unfortunately, as a direct result of its inability to change with the times, Debenhams closed all its UK stores in 2021.

Online fashion retailer Boohoo purchased Debenhams and relaunched their online presence in 2021 with no high street stores. Gone but not forgotten.

So what happened to the high street?

In the modern age, high streets have borne the brunt of online shopping more than anyone would have suspected. Retail giants like Woolworths, Littlewoods and C&A have all fallen by the wayside since their heyday in the 1970s.

Sometimes it’s bad management or bad planning, sometimes it’s the changes in consumer habits or an inability to keep up with technology and sometimes it's simply the shape of things to come.

The decline of the High Street Shops

Will convenience kill the high street forever?

With convenience being king, what’s more convenient than shopping from the comfort of your own armchair?

It seems a pity that high streets up and down the land have become a succession of coffee shops and betting establishments interspersed with the odd charity shop. High streets, after all, offered much more than just a place to shop. They were the hub of a community, the place to meet to spend time together, the chance to bump into a local friend or neighbour. Let's hope these things don’t become a thing of the past also.

1970 Woolworth High street shop

Is there a future for the high street?

We need to change our approach to the high street. The traditional high street full of big brand department stores is a thing of the past. It seems the key to resurrecting the new age high street is community.

Consumers vote with their finances, so whilst many will say they want a traditional high street the success of online delivery tells a different story. So, for the high street to fight back, it’s clear that it has to offer something different, something unique and something you can’t get online.

This elusive ‘something’ comes from the local community. In ever more insular times, especially after the isolation of lockdown, the opportunity to get out and meet local people in a welcoming environment is a must. Retailers need to look at reshaping these environments so that the social aspect of high-street shopping comes to the fore.

Don't save the high street – change it completely. - retail guru Mary Portas

It is no longer about simply getting people through the tills. If you’re interested to read more, read Mary Portas’s Review which goes into detail about both the problem and what is needed as a start to a solution.

Do you still shop on your local High Street? What do you think is the solution?

Let us know in the comments below, we'd love to hear from you!

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