Woolworth: The retail mammoth that suffered extinction

Woolworth's in Mexborough
Woolworth's in Mexborough
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Nobody typifies phenomenal entrepreneurial flair more than American Frank W. Woolworth. At one time, his near-identical stores selling mass-market, goods were the leading retail outlets in Britain and Ireland and numbered over 3,000 worldwide.

Woolworths was the first brand to go global and the company was always full of ideas. Three of his quotes are well known in the business world:

The Batley Woolworth's

The Batley Woolworth's

‘I am the world’s worst salesman, therefore, I must make it easy for people to buy.’

‘Dreams never hurt anybody if he keeps working right behind the dream to make as much of it as real as you can.’

‘We would rather have one man or woman working with us than three merely working for us.’

Born in Rodman, New York on April 13 1852, Woolworth’s teachers thought he was bright and hard-working, but a bit of a dreamer. His father ran a small farm and Frank, along with brother Charles, helped out with milking and picking potatoes in the evening.

Frank Woolworth

Frank Woolworth

As a boy, Woolworth was ridiculed in an upmarket store because he only had small amount of change to buy his mother a birthday present. Moving to a store selling cheaper items, where the staff were much more helpful, left a deep impression. He told his brother one day he would have his own store where people would be able to buy five or even ten items for fifty cents.

Leaving school and working on his father’s farm during the day, he studied book-keeping at night. A little later, he convinced the Augsbury & Moore Dry Goods Store Public Square, Watertown, New York, to allow him to work unpaid for them for three months while learning the ropes, in exchange for board and lodgings. He started in March 1873 and gradually showed real flair for display and acquired skills in stock control.

Branching out on his own on June 21 1879, he launched the F.W. Woolworth Great Five Cent Store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and being a success, a second branch in nearby Harrisburg, which was managed by his brother. Thereafter, over the following 25 years, the two brothers opened many more 5 & 10 cent stores across the USA.

Then, in 1909, Woolworth had the bright idea to open stores in the UK and invited some of his US store managers to relocate here. Vice President and General Manager of Woolworth & Co. Carson Peck said that moving such a valuable resource to a financially unproven ‘Little Infant’ in the UK would have a detrimental effect on the ‘bread and butter’ of the company.

Woolworth's in Briggate, Leeds, 1982

Woolworth's in Briggate, Leeds, 1982

Despite this, Frank took the plunge and 5c and 10c became threepence and sixpence at the branch in Church Street, Liverpool, opening in November 1909. The British venture was led by Woolworth’s cousin, Fred, along with three volunteers from New York State. One paper said its first store offered tomahawks and was thus a cowboy operation.

Another store was opened in Liverpool, then Preston and Manchester, followed by Leeds where a store was established in fashionable Royal Exchange buildings, in Boar Lane. Woolworth said the site would attract society people as they passed on their way into the banking halls around the corner. By Christmas 1910, Woolworths had five stores and just before the Great War there were 44.

Frank Woolworth’s lasting monument to his empire was the New York Woolworth Company’s HQ, designed in the neo-Gothic style by Cass Gilbert. Completed in 1913, it was 60 storeys high and cost about $13.5m.

Frank Woolworth died aged 66 on April 8 1919, and one line in an obituary said: ‘He made his money not by selling a little for a lot, but by selling a lot for a little.’ Brother Charles became chairman.

Woolworth's Leeds Music Bar in 1972

Woolworth's Leeds Music Bar in 1972

During 1923 Woolworths turned its attention to Leeds once more and opened a new store in Briggate. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that for eight months people in Leeds had watched the old buildings, which included the Albion Hotel, being demolished and seen ‘the spick and span new premises, with their shining terracotta front, rising in their place’. It was estimated the company then had 350 shops nationally.

The paper said Woolworth’s bought goods by the millions and low prices were what attracted people to the stores. The company guaranteed that it never had less than 88 per cent of British goods among its stock.

Leeds’s Woolworth’s building suffered a major fire in 1969 and closure came in 1987, although a smaller outlet continued in the Merrion Centre for a period.

Woolworth’s faded in the USA and Canada during the 1990s. In Britain the company collapsed dramatically, with about 800 stores shutting their doors in a mere 41 days. Woolworth’s Briggate site was subsequently occupied by House of Fraser.

Woolworth's new Sheffield store in 1962

Woolworth's new Sheffield store in 1962