Retail Species – The unlikely entreprenuer – Claire Robertson of Wellchester

The Person: Claire Robertson

The Company: Wellchester
The Job Title: Manager

This is going to be a feel-good column isn’t it? It certainly is a good British story involving pluck, underdogs and pick and mix. Claire Robertson started at high street stalwarts Woolworths as a Saturday girl way back in the day. And eventually rose up to be the manager of the large store in Dorchester.

Fantastic. But where does the pluck come in? On the sad day in January 2009 when Woolworths went to retail heaven Claire Robertson and her numerous team were given their marching orders. Some of the staff had worked there for decades. Ms Robertson was not happy – she had after all not built up a very good business for this.

OK. Not a lot she can do though is there? Au contraire. Two months later the same site is back in business with largely the same team. Chris Evans launches the grand re-opening and Claire Robertson is a national heroine.

Crikey. Was she a closet entrepreneur all the time? She says she liked the idea of doing something like this but had never had the chance. Fate handed her the baton and she grabbed it. She knew how good a store it was and knew it would leave a massive gap in Dorchester. And as she puts it ‘ I learnt I could do more than I realised.’

Did she have to plough a lifetime of savings into the project? No, not a penny. The whole thing was funded by the landlord of the premises. In fact it was he who approached Claire knowing that the site would probably stand empty and asked for suggestions. A throwaway comment is how she describes it but one which has changed her life.

How so? To say that the press loved the story is a huge understatement. Dorchester was inundated with media types and even foreign film crews. And as the poor woman was trying to organise a refit she also had to cope with a BBC crew trailing her every move for a documentary aired a month after she opened entitled ‘How Woolies Became Wellies’.

I expect the attention turned her head did it? Absolutely not. A customer is likely to be served by her on the till, or see her stacking shelves and on the shop floor is where she is most of the time. The only concession to the tourist destination status of the shop is a range of Wellworths merchandise.

What no tantrums at all? Listen, this is a very calm, self-possessed person. She learns, she moves on and adapts. If something goes wrong it is dealt with and she always stays calm. She says she utilises people to the best of their abilities although on the negative side she does admit to being scatterbrained. She has been in big demand to talk to groups – she cites talking to bankers in the city who hung on her every word as a particularly memorable occasion – and they always want the personal side of her story. They want the emotional journey from redundancy to resurgence and it makes them feel good.

The documentary made them look like lovable amateurs though didn’t it? She only has good things to say about the documentary. People still come to the shop to talk about it now and it was great for business.

Talking about great for business can we mention … you know what? You mean the name change.

Yes. We’ll mention it in passing as it is not something she is wishes to dwell on but the owners of the Woolworths brand, Shop Direct Group, began to kick up a fuss when they realised that Wellworths might be the name of a chain of shops rather than just one shop. After failing to agree terms Wellworths became Wellchester in 2010. Robertson says it has done the shop no harm and they have moved on without any further fuss.

And is a chain on the way? She is not a ‘run before she can walk’ type of person although she admits that there are similar towns to Dorchester badly served for a general retailer and there are definitely opportunities. But for now the focus is still on the one store and an imminent website coming in around two months.

Ah, e-commerce beckons. They have been selling on Amazon for an experimental couple of months and been amazed by the response. With Robertson doing no marketing at all they are shipping stuff all over the country, particularly to the older clientele who make more use of categories like stationery and shoecare etc.

So if I walked into Wellchester now is it like entering Woolies-lite? Robertson has kept some things like store layout similar but she has expanded on high-selling areas. There is a DIY section, a craft section and a pet section. She and her staff know the town and customers so well that they respond quickly to a shift in demand.

And her dream retailers are? Well, she admits to an admiration for Wilkinsons and also for Primark for their ability to endlessly capture the market. But she also has a great liking for independents which she follows on Twitter a lot.

Is she a bit of retail guru now? Not really but she has spawned some notable copies. In April 2010 Faith shoe shops went into administration and in July 2010 the Chelmsford branch re-opened as Hope. Robertson was cited at the time as an inspiration.

Has anyone else ‘done a Wellchester’? Robertson herself is surprised that not more Woolies sites were snapped up for that purpose as they were always in prime positions. However the ill-fated Alworths chain of around 19 stores which went into receivership in March 2011 may have put some people off. Over-expansion is her verdict on the Alworths story.

Well, I don’t know about you but I’m feeling much happier. Now that’s the underdog phenomena I mentioned earlier. Along with a good helping of Black Jacks.