For more than five decades, this landmark Bridgetown store has been a household name in Barbados, offering bargains on a wide range of products from school uniforms and books to kitchen and household supplies, and everything else in between.
As one of the oldest City retail outlets, Woolworth, the Bargain Store, has undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the island’s development over the past 50 years.
Today, Managing Director Martin Bryan is one of the driving forces behind the continuing development of the business. He took over at the helm around 2009 after being involved in a different role for about eight years prior.
“It has changed quite substantially. We have established quite a lot of our own contacts with distributors in Central America, China, in the United States and Canada and we deal directly with them,” Bryan told Barbados TODAY.
Years ago, everything on sale in the store was sourced through the United Kingdom since the local Woolworth was a branch of the Woolworth UK chain. About 20 years ago, however, the Barbados operation was sold to the manager at the time, Bryan’s father-in-law.
After his death, Bryan and his wife acquired the business. “So it has been in the family for the last 25 years,” Bryan said. “Prior to that it was part of the UK chain.”
Stressing that Woolworth’s items are unique and affordable, Bryan went on: “That is why we are known as the bargain store. You get value for money, good products at good prices”.
Shortly after taking over at the helm, Bryan was not afraid to take on a few new challenges. These included closing what used to be a popular in-store canteen upstairs on the second floor and using this space to open a children’s clothing department which is doing good business.
Bryan transformed the overall layout of the store, expanding the souvenirs, toys and books departments. “Over the years we have made the departments bigger and better than they were before. Better merchandise, better layout and generally our customers are quite happy.”
While Bryan performs the role of “chief problem solver”, overseeing day-to-day operations, his wife, Laura, goes in search of unique retail items and makes all the purchases. As the seasons change, so does the assortment of items in the store.
“I think we have upped the game,” said Bryan. “When we came into the business, we created a place where, you had department stores before, but we created the discount department store where there is value for money.”
Bryan is proud that Woolworth offers residents and visitors from all income categories, value for money. However, he is especially pleased that budget conscious Barbadians are able to “get goods at great prices [leaving] them with a lot more disposable income in their pockets”.
“People have noticed. They say, ‘I come into your store and I am going to pick up the same items and it saves me a couple of dollars as opposed to going somewhere else’. And they can use that money for whatever they need,” Bryan added.
The father of two girls, ages 14 and 11, also boasts of the store’s employment opportunities. Woolworth currently has a staff complement of 60 people. It can go as high as 100 during the summer and Christmas periods, when they take on “a lot of part-timers and students”.
The bargain store is heavily involved in the community, providing sponsorships and giving to charities, but prefers not say much about these activities. Bryan disclosed that Woolworth, over the years, has assisted a significant number of fire victims, albeit indirectly.
It is Bryan’s wish that operators in the retail sector “come together” more. Pointing out that last Christmas was very vibrant due mainly to a partnership with industry players, the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), Government and LED Caribbean Lighting, Bryan said the lighting campaign had brought back some life to the City.
“We are going to try, maybe, to get a shuttle system in place. Maybe work with the Government to get a shuttle system in place doing a circle to three or four car parks or two or three pick up points,” he said, explaining that such a system should encourage more people to do their shopping in Bridgetown.
“I think the prices now in Barbados have come down and certainly the selection that we have and some of the bigger department stores, that you can get a good selection without feeling the need to pick up and go to Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica or Miami,” he said.
However, there is “one big problem” facing retailers in Barbados, Bryan said. It is the slow pace of business at the Bridgetown Port and Customs Department which, he said, was resulting in increased charges for business operators.
“Sometimes the goods can take a while to get out the port. Every day is dollars lost. There is this demurrage charge that we are being charged because we are not being expedited because they are including weekends into the number of days you can clear goods and all of this relates into the cost of goods,” he lamented.
The businessman said depending on the country’s economic performance, Woolworth could establish operations at another location in the “foreseeable future”.
Optimistic about continued business growth, Bryan said Woolworth has been slowly but surely capturing market share. “I think the outlook for the retail sector in Barbados is challenging but I have a positive outlook,” he said.
“Here at Woolworth, we have the competitive edge over a lot of stores in Barbados, primarily in Bridgetown, because we have the selection that no one has. People come in here because they can find anything they want at reasonable prices.”
He added: “We have been around in 60 years. We have seen changes and improvements. Obviously there is always room for improvement, which we strive to do better. So I see us growing. I see us having another branch sometime in the future.”
As Barbados celebrates its golden jubilee of Independence this year, Bryan wants Barbadians to take more pride in their country. He expressed the view that the island was slipping away from being known as the “jewel of the Caribbean”, and urged Barbadians to care more for each other.
“If we look at the state of our country, the state of our roads, the state of the garbage on the streets, it is quite appalling to me when you can see people who are supposed to have pride and industry and you go on the beaches, the highways and bi-ways and there is litter all over the place,” said Bryan.
“We need to take pride in what we have here. Also, Barbadians need to take pride in themselves in terms of the work ethic – coming in to work on time and putting in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. If we can be productive and have some pride in our nation and ourselves, we can compete with anybody in the world because we have the acumen, we have the education. Barbadians on a whole are very versatile and we can weather a storm,” he added.
Bryan noted it was challenging for the store during the economic downturn, but management and staff worked closely to ensure there were no staff cuts.
“We put measures in place where we cut our expenses to ensure that although sales were dropping, we were not in a position where we had to lay off any one,” he explained.
“In doing that, we have weathered and hopefully will keep weathering the storm. Our staff are quite hard workers . . . it is a good family type environment. The common goal is to see Woolworth grow and succeed.” [email protected].