The Rise and Fall of Woolies
The Rise and Fall of Woolies
The rise and fall of Woollies . By Peter Carroll.
Many of us will truly miss shopping in Woolworth’s. It seems as though it is part of an institution, just the thought of this famous store closing is sacrilege!
For me it has been there for a three score and fifteen lifetime- my first recollections still vivid in the mind – browsing around each individual counter manned by one or two assistants according to how busy they were, each counter, about ten to sixteen in all, offering a different display of goods that most all could afford for the price of sixpence (two and a half pence) .
My Dad was an incurable flirt, quite harmless, and all the female assistants in our local store knew him for his charm and humour, I never felt uncomfortable about the way he was because he had the ability of even making the most glum of people smile.
We were comparatively poor in the nineteen forties when only Dad was the breadwinner, so like so many others at that time Woolworth served a great purpose on offering the hard up public what they needed for a real price they could afford, similar to stores like £-stretcher today because I guess a sixpence then would value £l today. For example Dad used to repair all our shoes and various shapes and sizes of cut leather were always available.
That’s how in 1912 Frank Woolworth – opening his first ‘five and ten’ store – given the backing of his former employer, William Moore and selling merchandise for five and ten cents – was an instant success. He formerly worked as a sales assistant in 1873 in the Augubury & Moore Dry Goods store in Watertown, New York, having gained all the experience he needed to enthusiastically launch such an adventurous new project and of course he had his critics, that he could never build a business on such small profits, but he argued that ‘give ‘em what they need at a price they could manage and they would come in their hoards.’ His reasoning that even though profits were low selling in huge quantities would compensate. He was a man of vision, like his counterparts in Britain, Marks and Spencer who started off as barrow boys and his venture was about to pay off in a way no one could have envisaged at the time.
Along with William Moore – given sheer hard work and determination he pulled in family and friends who could see they were onto a good thing – and in 1912 they all merged to form the later familiar F.W. Woolworth Company.
Soon the stores sprung up everywhere in the US. Frank was not one to sit in his Directors chair and let his success take its course, complacency in his mind was like a bug just waiting to destroy all the good work achieved. He visited his supplier’s factories particularly in his European tours, he showed American businessmen how to design and configure machines to build glassware, china and such, emulating their European counterparts who were streets ahead. He showed others how to make mouldings for toys and dolls. He systematically found new sources for all the items previously sourced from Europe, and was well rewarded for his ingenuity by way of extra discounts, and in 1916 sales and profits rocketed and the American company truly found its feet , so much so that it its name was entered in the American dictionary which became known as the synonym for no frills high quality production.
Frank liked the British. He wanted to introduce his stores abroad and Liverpool seemed a good place to start. There he opened his first 6d store in Church Street on Guy Fawkes day, 1909. His primary aim was to test the reaction of the British buying public. Now given the name retail therapy, Frank was probably the first to introduce the idea of enthusing a feel -good factor to those who entered his store He gave a lot of thought to the placement of his merchandise and the design and red colour of his counters which created a sense of warmth and well being. and on that first day of opening in Liverpool, remarkably his aim was not to sell anything, but simply to give customers the opportunity to lavish their eyes on the quality of the goods on display at really unbelievable prices. He even laid on a free buffet in the new restaurant, it seemed like a party, happy prospective customers were entertained by a full brass band. ‘Give ‘em some of the Yankee razzmatazz ‘ Frank was heard to say and it worked to a treat. His forthright charisma enticed a multitude of shoppers into the store the next day and the Woollies in Britain success story had started. Very soon Frank started a rapid programme of openings in Preston, Manchester, Leeds and Hull followed by the southern counties. In the 1930’s F.W. Woolworth had 375 stores in the larger UK towns and in 1934 the 600th store opened in Wallington, Surrey and by 1939 they had grown to 759 stores, the 760th store in Weybridge, Surrey was kept closed throughout the 2nd World War and used a relief head office for much of the blitz.
A remarkable story indeed but sooner or later the tide of time changed, and the course of events took their toll. F.W. Woolworth became simply Woolworth’s – part of the Kingfisher group .The familiar red and gold raised nameplate disappeared and somehow, even then, for me, Woollies had lost its certain charisma. Its look and appeal dwindled, it became much like any other large store. I will always remember browsing and feeling the magic of Woolworth’s with my dad.
Perhaps if someone in the Woolworth family was there to follow Frank’s steps, it would still be successful. But pure genius’s are not a family trend and time marches onwards regardless.
I am just glad I have lived to share the Woolworth exuberance in its true glory!