For much of the 20th century, the Moores family operated a number of highly profitable businesses under the ‘Littlewoods’ name, including football pools and mail-order catalogues. The most visible aspect of their lucrative empire, however, was the chain of Littlewoods high street stores. Architecturally, few of these buildings were as handsome as the stores of rivals such as Marks & Spencer, C&A, or even British Home Stores. Commercially, they never inspired the same affection as Woolworth. Yet Littlewoods was strong presence in British shopping centres for a good 65 years, and its closure in 2002 seemed to mark the passing of a retail era.
Littlewoods Pools was founded by John Moores (1896-1993; knighted 1980) in Liverpool in 1923. The business adopted the name of one of Moores’ original partners, Colin Henry Littlewood. In 1932 it expanded to include mail-order retailing, organised through local clubs. The subsidiary Littlewoods Mail Order Stores Ltd was formed in 1937, and the first outlet opened on Waterloo Road in Blackpool.
Littlewoods stores were similar to British Home Stores (BHS), selling a variety of low-cost (3d. to 2s. 11d.) clothing and household goods. Blackpool was followed by a number of other prime locations, including Oxford Street in central London, Brixton, Birmingham and Manchester. Littlewoods – like Woolworth – seems to have specifically targeted popular seaside towns, including Morecambe and Ramsgate as well as Blackpool.
By 1939 there were 24 stores. A number of these were purpose-built for Littlewoods to designs by J. S. Quilter & Son. John Salmon Quilter (1841-1907) was, in fact, long dead, but his architectural practice had been continued by his son Cecil Molyneux Quilter (1879-1951). Quilter specialised in commercial architecture, notably public houses. He designed a new Blackpool store for Littlewoods, on the corner of Church Street and Corporation Street, which was faced in Empire stone. He also designed a store in Chester, and may have been responsible for the one in Morecambe. This faience-clad art deco building is the best surviving example of a pre-war Littlewoods store – indeed, it may be the best surviving Littlewoods of all time – even preserving ‘diamond L’ motifs on the entrance lobby floors. These clearly copied Woolworth’s ‘diamond W’.
Food departments were introduced into Littlewoods stores after the war, and as soon as it became feasible the company resumed its expansion policy. By 1956 there were 55 stores plus 12 ‘Jemima Shops’, specialising in blouses and lingerie.
Annual reports were published at length in the national press from the mid-1950s through to the mid-1960s, providing details of Littlewoods’ development programme at that time. In 1956, for example, new stores opened in Banbury, Torquay, Islington, Lancaster, Crawley, Dumbarton and – actually a rebuild – Watford. The company maintained: ‘we retain the services of one of the leading designers to make sure that our stores are not only gay and attractive but efficient places in which to do the household shopping. In addition, we are always studying store practice in America and on the Continent, and are always ready to introduce new ideas if we believe that they will give our customer better service’ (quoted from The Times, 16 May 1956, 22). Unfortunately, the ‘leading designers’ were not identified.
After Quilter’s death, Littlewoods seems to have depended on its in-house architects. By the early 1960s the company was experimenting with curtain walling, notably on Oxford Street, London, where a new building designed by in-house architect D. M. C. Roddick (with consulting engineer Septimus Willis) opened on 15 March 1962. The store occupied the lower floors, while the upper-floor offices were offered to let. The white-on-blue Littlewoods lettering on the fascia was in the blocky ‘Egyptian’ fashion of the time. In other cities, where lettable office space played no part in schemes, the company’s preference was for minimal windows – reduced to thin horizontal strips or, by the end of the 1960s, done away with altogether. Regardless of façade treatment, stores had steel frames – as can be seen in a John Laing photograph showing the Shrewsbury store under construction in 1964. Tragically, a labourer was killed by falling concrete floor slab during the construction of this building.
As Littlewoods’ taste for blind façades – plain, textured or panelled – implies, sales floors relied heavily on artificial lighting and ventilation. Readily-available evidence for interiors is sparse but the up-to-date restaurant in the Stockton-on-Tees store of 1959 served to illustrate press advertisements for ‘Pel’ tubular steel furniture for a number of years. New store openings in 1960 included Basildon, Kirby, Oldham and the Glasgow ‘superstore’, regarded as ‘one of the largest single-floor chain stores in the country’.
By 1965 the number of Littlewoods stores had risen to 70, and by 1984 to 108. Significant developments in this period included Leicester (1968), Gloucester (1968), Wolverhampton (Wulfrun Centre, 1969), Watford (extension 1970), Bath (Southgate Centre, 1972), Glasgow (extension to Argyle Street, enlarging store to 90,000 sq.ft.), Exeter (1973), Bradford (1976; 75,000 sq.ft.) and Peterborough (Queensway Centre, 1982). By the mid-1980s, Littlewoods was moving from town centres to out-of-town shopping centres. Moores’ long-term aim, to establish a chain of 120 Littlewoods stores, was achieved by 1990.
At the age of 81 Sir John Moores stepped down as Chairman in 1977. His son Peter took over briefly, but Sir John resumed control between 1980 and 1982. The main initiative of the later 1980s was Index Catalogue Stores. In 2005, when this loss-making chain folded, there were 66 freestanding shops and 93 inside Littlewoods stores. 33 shops were sold to rival catalogue retailer Argos.
Family disagreements about business strategy in the wake of the founder’s death in 1993 prompted unsuccessful takeover bids for the company. The outcome was a complete separation of ownership from day-to-day management, which was placed in the hands of a new Chairman, James Ross, and Chief Executive, Barry Gibson. Events in the late 1990s seem to highlight the absence of a consistent strategy. First of all, in 1997 a planned expansion programme was abandoned in order to develop the home shopping division. Then a deal to sell all 135 stores to Kingfisher fell through, but 19 large stores were sold to Marks & Spencer for £200 million. According to some commentators, this marked the start of Marks & Spencer’s much-publicised troubles. In 1999 Littlewoods began to (retail-speak alert!) update the store environment of 35 premises in the first phase of a £120 million investment programme which would affect every store (now numbering 112) within three years.
Meanwhile the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994 had thoroughly undermined the pools business, which was sold for £161.8 million – a fraction of its pre-Lottery value – in 2000.
When the decision was taken by the Moores family to sell all remaining 119 Littlewoods stores in 2002, they initially intended to retain the more profitable home shopping operation with its successful website. However, they accepted an offer of £750 million for the entire enterprise from the Barclay Brothers, owners of the Ritz Hotel, the Scotsman newspaper and numerous other businesses. Subsequently the stores closed – many were sold to Primark – and the Littlewoods name vanished from the high street after 65 years. Littlewoods home shopping is now part of the Barclays’ Shop Direct Group, a business initially formed through the merger of Littlewoods and Kays Catalogues and later joined (until 2015) by Woolworths.