It was a sunny southern hemisphere spring day in October 1931 when businessman Max Sonnenberg and his son, Richard, opened the doors of a small shop in Cape Town’s city center. Allegedly housed in the dining room of the old Royal Hotel on Plein Street, within spitting distance from parliament’s back entrance, the store promised to bring value and affordability to South Africa’s white middle class.
Timing was far from ideal. The Wall Street Crash two years before had submerged the world in a frothing whirlpool of economic turmoil. South Africa too, was affected. Despite hardship dominated by poor economic growth, tumbling exports, and mass retrenchments, the store was a success. It did so well that it captured the entrepreneurial imagination of serial businessman Elie Susman who had made his fortune from cattle, banking, and retail.
Having a genuine eye for business opportunities, Susman was taken aback by the success he saw, prompting him to financially back the opening of a second store in Durban. More branches followed suit and soon Woolworths was deeply embedded in South Africans’ day-to-day shopping lexicon.
Since the 1930s, Woolworths has morphed into a multi-billion-dollar holding company, comprising the familiar Woolworths food and clothing brand, as well as Australian brands Country Road and David Jones. The latter, a denim retailer, was bought last year for $2 billion. The acquisition proved to be a massive boost for Woolworths Holdings Limited (WHL), which saw its profit over the first six months to December 28, 2014, jump by 29%. Sales increased by 55%, to $2.56 billion. Without the David Jones business, sales would have grown by only 12.5%.
The David Jones acquisition also led to an expansion of WHL’s footprint, to 1,200 stores in 15 countries worldwide, including Australia. The 633 Woolies branches in 12 African nations, including Botswana, Namibia, and Kenya, however remain the company’s backbone. This number is likely to increase.
“We want to grow our footprint by some 10% per annum for the next three or four years,” says Group CEO, Ian Moir, adding that a lot of attention will go to the food side of the business. “Our food footprint has more than doubled since 2010.”
While WHL has been doing well, things have not always looked bright. The retailer was badly affected by the economic crisis of 2008/2009, which sank South Africa into its first recession in 17 years. Moir says the attitude of the company, which only comprised food and clothing at the time, towards its customers, was one of the culprits.
“We had become complacent, arrogant, and too expensive, and we were not listening to our customers. As a result, our sales plummeted during the recession,” he says.
The downturn forced Woolworths to rethink its strategy.
“Someone once said that one should never let the benefits of a good recession pass by,” says Moir. “The Woolworths of today sees the customer as king, not the product. That is the big difference. If the customer thinks we are wrong, then we are wrong. If the customer thinks our prices are too high, then the prices are too high. That has been the biggest transformation since the recession.”
Complaints are taken seriously, says Moir.
“We used to be known as arrogant and not wanting to listen. Today, we reply to all complaints, queries, and criticism through our customer communications and social media teams. I even get some of them.”
The Woolworths approach has been well received in South Africa, as well as in other African countries such as Botswana and Namibia. Here the brand is still growing substantially. In some countries however, Woolworths didn’t manage to get off the ground. Nigeria is one of them. Last year the company decided to pull out of Africa’s largest economy for the second time.
“We were losing money hand over fist. Nigeria is a very difficult market for any apparel retailer to make money in. Firstly, the Nigerian retail market is largely informal, with very few shopping malls. The rental of the shopping malls that do exist, is very high,” says Moir.
“Doing business is very difficult, generally speaking, from traveling around to getting goods in the country,” he says, adding that Woolworths uses the same suppliers regardless of the location.
“We made a mistake by going into Nigeria, despite having the right partner,” Moir confesses. “It was the second time we tried it, and we won’t be trying it for a third time. Nigeria just doesn’t work for us.”
Moir doesn’t see Woolworths’ Nigeria adventure as wasted time. Making mistakes, he says, makes you grow.
“You, as a business, can always get better, and you will always make mistakes and there are always things to learn. My biggest fear is complacency in a business. If you think you won’t make mistakes, then you will fail.”
In other countries, business is going well. Moir says this is a result of the way Woolworths treats its employees.
“Our salaries are competitive and our benefits are better than elsewhere.”
Based on feedback from employees, the jobs portal, Indeed.co.za, gives Woolworths four out of five stars as an employer with staff discounts and incentives lauded. It, however, says salaries are too low and work hours too long.
The brand’s strength, according to Moir, is associated with value, principles, integrity, and sustainability.
The company donates $79,000 to educational causes every week. Moir also says the company is committed to environmental sustainability, such as minimizing water consumption and reducing the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Despite its good intentions, Woolworths has faced the wrath of environmental activists more than once, and for a multitude of issues, including the treatment of pigs, the use of GMOs and claims the company’s free-range milk was not free-range at all.
“That type of activism is good for us as it forces us to do the right thing,” says Moir.
“That is why we, apart from selling free-range eggs, want to ensure that free-range eggs are used in all Woolworths branded products, down to the cake mix. This was a tough process. You are, after all, dealing with large suppliers of which you are not the only customer. As a result, you can’t do things as fast as activists would want you to. It takes years sometimes.”
Environmental activist, Caroline Hurry, however, claims the company won’t speak to her.
“They refused to answer any of my questions in writing. In the beginning, when I started investigating their practices in relation to animal cruelty, they suggested I call them for ‘a little chat’. But being a journalist, I insist on answers in writing. I have also found that the soy in their bread had the second-highest GMO content in the country… Woolworths doesn’t label all their GM food. At best, the label says ‘may contain GMO’. I have now been blocked on Twitter, by the very account that told us to ask questions,” says Hurry.
While he has sympathy for environmental activists, Moir is no fan of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which calls for the active isolation of Israel and for the country to end its occupation of Palestine. In South Africa, BDS has its teeth firmly sunk into Woolworths. Their objective is to force the retailer to stop selling Israeli products – 0.4% of its total offer.
“These protests were very unpleasant for our staff and customers, with pig heads being left on our shelves and people charging through stores, knocking over our goods, destroying them even. We have had protestors lying on the floor, pouring blood over themselves. A court order has stopped this.”
Despite the court order, the protesters claim their actions were costly for the retailer.
“The campaign is successful and growing. An independent report, released by Wits University, states that WHL has lost close to $3 million, since the start of the #BoycottWoolworths campaign in August last year. A survey among 300 people has shown that 84% of respondents said they stopped shopping at Woolworths shortly after we called for boycott,” says BDS coordinator, Muhammed Desai.
Despite a few setbacks, Woolworths has grown from a small store in Cape Town to an international retailer – a story of shopping bags