Close-Up: Newsmaker - Steady Trinder oversees the Woolworths overhaul

The chain is losing ground to supermarkets and retail parks, Claire Billings writes. Under its previous owner, Kingfisher, the Woolworths chain suffered from a lack of investment. Nowhere is this reflected more than in its HQ next to Marylebone Station in London - now surrounded by scaffolding as it gets a long-overdue facelift.

Those days are now over, according to Mark Trinder, the head of marketing communications at Woolworths. Three years after its demerger from Kingfisher, the retailer is fighting hard to refresh its image and strengthen its significance to British consumers.

At the moment, the building is somewhat sterile - all plain white walls and laminate wooden flooring. Trinder likens the atmosphere to that of a hospital as we walk through the corridors to a meeting room. Certainly, there is a lack of personality or charm.

Its stores have been suffering from much the same problem in recent years. Once a bastion of the British high street, they are now tatty and run down. Their shelves resemble a jumble sale filled with poor-quality bric-a-brac - the legacy of the retailer's misguided strategy to try to be all things to all people. Again, this is a situation the company is urgently seeking to rectify.

A multimillion-pound investment programme is underway, following its spin-off as Woolworths Group plc and the installation of a new management team, led by Trevor Bish-Jones, the former chief executive of another Kingfisher owned-store chain, Dixons Group. About £50 million has been sunk into a gradual overhaul of its 800 stores, with another £30 million earmarked for this year.

It is a mammoth task in which marketing strategy must take centre stage.

Trinder, 37, has steadily clocked up 20 years in the business, half of which was in retail at Safeway, where he worked from 1990 to 1999, reporting to the then marketing chief, Roger Partington, during a significant growth period.

He then spent three years at the toy manufacturer Hasbro where he restructured the marketing department and set up media deals to promote its products.

This combination of experience means he knows the promotional tricks of the retailing trade and how to use media to communicate its message, which will play a crucial part in the Woolworths recovery plan.

Matt Cooney, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty business director, says: "Mark understands all aspects of retailing, from display to a media deal with Hit 40 UK. He understands the media landscape and is up to speed on agencies and the creative process. He's a strong all-rounder."

Those who know him describe him as a safe pair of hands to steer the brand's repositioning. His career history is slow, but sure. One agency source who worked with Trinder on the Hasbro account describes his approach as being more like a Kevin Keegan than a Sven-Goran Eriksson: he's a hard worker but no genius.

Hard work is the key to Woolworths' turnaroud, as its problems are not confined to a lack of investment. Like its high-street neighbours WH Smith, Boots and Marks & Spencer, Woolworths is faced with pressures from retail parks and supermarkets, which offer its products at competitive prices and at a location where everyone has to go on a regular basis to do their food shopping.

"Woolworths has to offer something that compels people to make a separate trip to the high street," Richard Hyman, the chairman of Verdict Research, explains.

Trinder thinks high-street shops still have a role to play in people's lives, particularly Woolworths because of the emotional warmth the brand evokes in people. "It's a slightly different experience. Grocery shopping is a chore, the high street is about enjoyment."

With this in mind, Trinder has set about making its proposition more attractive. First, he identified its key audience (young families) and tailored its products accordingly. He defined five categories: entertainment, clothing, confectionery, toys and home.

Within each division, products have been further streamlined and the quality improved. Where once the music offering was mainly back-catalogue compilations - somewhere to buy Des O'Connor or Dolly Parton albums - it now focuses on chart music. Trinder also claims that some of its home furnishings would not look out of place in The Conran Shop.

This has happened with little fanfare. There have been product ads for CDs and last year its newly appointed advertising agency BBH, which replaced its agency of 17 years, Bates, created its first campaign, promoting its back-to-school offer.

The ads bore BBH's obvious style, featuring children playing football and rounded off with a compelling soundtrack.

However, the ads were not as strong as the campaign that broke in the run-up to Easter, which introduced two brand mascots in the shape of furry puppets called Wooly (a sheep) and Worth (a dog), promoting its three-for-two Easter egg deal.

The newest campaign was right at the centre of Trinder's strategy to focus the retailer on children and celebrations and offer product and price promotions. The agency has also come up with the strapline "let's have some fun", which runs right across the brand's promotional activity.

Launching its new advertising vehicle at Easter is significant, as the festive holidays are Woolworths' busiest trading periods.

It is something that is at the heart of its repositioning, because the stores will aim to provide everything that a family needs to celebrate those occasions from the gifts, cards and wrapping paper to the furniture.

Trinder also aims for this to be extended to other occasions such as Halloween and even the football season.

Trinder says the ads will work because the characters are something that parents and children can relate to. "We debated a celebrity and a family, then over six to eight weeks we came up with Wooly and Worth, which are representative of fun and the recall is good because of their names."

Neil Dawson, the executive planning director at TBWA\London, was sceptical about the back-to-school ads, but is more positive about the Wooly and Worth campaign. "The challenge when you have a three-for-two deal is that it is difficult to retain the integrity of the brand, but these ads manage to achieve it," he says.

Trinder says when the Easter trading period's results are released, it will show the store has hit its targets. But Woolworths' problems go beyond anything that an ad campaign can do. So far, the general consensus is that it is on the right track. Of far greater concern, however, is the continued relevance of high-street stores such as Boots, Woolworths and WH Smith to consumers' lives.

Hyman believes that while the retailer has achieved a lot in the past 18 months with its repositioning, it is the next stage of its turnaround that will be harder to achieve. "Medium to long term, the challenge is going to be holding on to current business, let alone growing it," Hyman says.

Simon Clemmow, the planning partner at Clemmow Hornby Inge, sums up the challenge facing high-street stores: "The problems for retailers mushroom as the temptation grows for people to go to one store for all of their shopping needs. These macro issues are going to be as important to retailers as any brand repositioning."

Trinder, like his peers, is unlikely to have much luck stemming this trend.

QUESTIONNAIRE

Age: 37

Lives: Clapham

Family: Wife Louise and son Connor

Favourite ad: Nike "Brazil vs Portugal"

Describe yourself in three words: Relaxed, passionate, dry

Greatest extravagance: Getting married

Most treasured possession: Wife and son

Most admired agency: BBH and ZenithOptimedia

Living person you most admire: Kenny Dalglish

One to watch: Sian McDermott, account director, BBH

Motto: Make sure you go home at a decent time

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