Motivation and the wild wild sea
Outside In or Inside Out Poetry?

Motivation, teams and Woolworths

Back in December 2008 I remember walking down from Glastonbury Tor into the main town with my wife. We had taken a short break in Glastonbury and were enjoying ourselves.

As we came into the main town I spotted a Woolworths store on the right side of the road and crossed to have a look; it was closing down, as they all were after a 99 year history on the British High Street. I hadn’t been into a Woolworths for perhaps 25 years, and why would I? What did they have that I
wanted? But there in the window was a copy of the newly released Iron Man DVD, starring Robert Downey Jnr.

My family had been to see it at the cinema some months previously and I thought what an excellent gift to bring back to my son. (Of course, I wanted to re-see it myself!). Woolworth sold stuff cheap, didn’t they? That was their model – so there it was, £15, in the window. Immediately I realised this wasn’t cheap; that if I went back to Asda or Tesco in Bournemouth they would be selling it at £10 a copy … but here I was, at – to use BBC vernacular applying to almost anything these days – this ‘historic moment’ when I could savour Woolworths for the last time. So I went in.

It took me 30 seconds to pick up the DVD and join the queue of 5 people in front of me – and soon several behind me. Then it began – the reasons why Woolworths was going out of business!

There are two major reasons given why businesses fail; the first is really a consequence of the second: namely, lack of sales which result invariably from poor leadership. And leaders need to master five things: two of which, or their absence, were in full view in front of me.

There were two tills, only one of which was manned, despite their being three members of staff initially congregating around the tills. One person was being served as the first till member was turned away engaging in two far more important conversations with her colleagues. The second colleague insisted they were due a tea break, and after due insistence went out the front and in full view of us lit up a fag. The third colleague stood by a door leading into a stock room – presumably, waiting to service any customer at the one till operating in case they needed anything from the stock room. Meanwhile, leaving the second till unattended as the queue grew.

A man was at the front now who wanted to buy 3 mobile phones, but this – it turned out – was impossible according to the Woolworths rule book. He could only buy one! But more amazing, the till woman suggested he buy the one, go back and queue again to buy the second, and then again for the third. I know! I know! It sounds crazy, and that’s how the guy took it: ‘you must be kidding me!’ What rule? Why? There was no answer to this, but this was the rule.  

What was I seeing? No teamwork at all – more important to have a tea/fag break than support a colleague, or more important to lean against the wall. No commitment and no motivation in the staff to serve the customers. And on top of this bureaucratic regulations that even if they were valid had not even been explained to the staff so that they could communicate the logic of them. It was a total mess.  

Leaders need to be able to build strong teams and motivate staff: they had clearly failed, and this situation was endemic. Further, they hadn’t even managed to create fluent operating and sales procedures; no wonder they were going bust. 

I was patient – I finally got my DVD after 20 minutes queuing. My son was delighted with the gift. But as I left the shop I thought, ‘Thank God I soon won’t be able to go back there again – stuff historic moments!’




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Harvey Taylor

Sadly all too common. Really stands out when it is better than this. The Woolworths in Southborne Grove is now called the Ludo Lounge. The service and the ambience are excellent. Couldn't be a more striking contrast. And at the bottom of it all the staff seem genuinely happy. What a difference!

Rob Breeds

And it doesn't just apply to 'legacy' stores like Woolworths. I continue to see it frequently in companies that should know better. Last time I went to a Tesco Extra, there was a group of employees sitting about the front entrance smoking, oblivious to customers. What a lovely welcome. And asking staff or even managers for help is like Russian roulette. You might get lucky. It's lack of attention to customer experience that gives competitors opportunity. Watch as Sainsbury's makes a comeback by providing a quality, welcoming experience.

james sale

Thanks Harvey and Rob - I like the idea of how it stands out when things are better; and also like the idea of Russion roulette - this is what management is paid to avoid, you'd think! Woolworths have paid the price - let's hope all other stores, super or otherwise, pay the price too when service is like the Woolworths' experience.

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