Today in Brand History: F.W. Woolworth's Five-and-Dime Goes Global
On November 5th, 1909 F.W. Woolworth opened the first UK Woolworths store in Liverpool, pioneering the retail chain store's "five-and-dime" concept globally and introducing American products and brands to the British consumer.
The original Woolworths story began with founder Frank Winfield Woolworth. Born in 1852 in Upstate New York, Woolworth's parents were hardworking farm folk who influenced his entrepreneurial spirit and encouraged him to enter the workforce at a young age. Frank never earned his high school diploma, and after working as a clerk and traveling salesman for several dry goods companies, Woolworth set out to launch his own retail business.
In June of 1879 after working at Augsbury and Moore Dry Goods in Watertown, NY, Frank Winfield Woolworth at age 27, with a small loan from his parents and credit from his former boss, William Moore to buy merchandise, opened the "Woolworth's Great Five Cent Store" in Utica, New York. Woolworth sold discounted goods at fixed prices of five-cents, pioneering the low-cost, high-volume retail model.
Though initially successful, his first store failed in just a few months. However, Frank stuck with the concept and made his second attempt in Lancaster, Pennsylvania just one year later, even using the sign from the Utica store. This store quickly proved to be a success. By 1886, Woolworth had returned to Utica and opened 4 more stores in New York and Pennsylvania, continuing to expand rapidly throughout the 1880s-1890s with the help of his brother, Charles Sumner "Sum" Woolworth.
It was Charles who opened up the Scranton, Pennsylvania store in 1882 as F.W. Woolworth's first franchise partner. Charles, or "Sum" as he was called, partnered with long time friend, Fred Morgan Kirby in 1884 to open up a new store in Wilkes Barre, PA, calling it Woolworth & Kirby. This was a common expansion practice of the day, taking on a local partner to help run a store, hence the different versions of Woolworth's that continued to open up. While Frank focused on expanding the store base using this model, Sum continued to perfect the eventual Woolworth's concept in his Scranton store.
Woolworth’s retail innovations like setting fixed prices, keeping costs low and encouraging high turnover revolutionized discount retailing. Stores were relatively modest in size, especially compared to modern retail spaces, with floor space ranging from less than 1,000 to a few thousand square feet. Stores occupied ground floor street-level retail spaces in busier downtown urban areas. Shelving, counters and floor displays were packed densely to display the variety of inexpensive merchandise.
Typical stores had large front windows, a service counter, and rows of shelves/tables holding neatly arranged goods for customers to browse.
By 1900, Woolworth had 59 Woolworth’s stores and throughout the early 1900s, new stores opened at a breakneck pace, allowing partners to open their own stores and acquired some smaller competitors to fuel growth. By 1912, there were 596 stores across six different affiliated chains. The group agreed to a plan developed by Frank Woolworth to join together and incorporate as one entity under the name "F.W. Woolworth Company" merging all of the stores together. Charles "Sum" Woolworth, Fred Kirby, Seymour Knox, and Frank's original boss, William Moore each became a director in the new entity.
Seeking new markets for expansion, Woolworth's looked abroad to the United Kingdom. On November 5th, 1909, F.W. Woolworth opened the first British Woolworths in Liverpool, England. The Liverpool store brought the five-and-dime concept across the Atlantic for the first time. British shoppers flocked to buy discounted goods with uniform pricing, a completely new retail experience.
"I believe that a good 'penny and sixpence' store, run by a live Yankee, would be a sensation here." - Frank Woolworth
Woolworths established the tradition of a pre-opening preview for the day before the store opened in the US and honored it in the UK as company custom dictated. Members of the public were invited to join the press, local shopkeepers and dignitaries for refreshments in the tea room and to "freely inspect the beautiful building and big values". As reported by Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury on November 6th, 1909, "Many thousands of people yesterday afternoon and evening availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the proprietors, Messrs. F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd., of inspecting their new stores at Church Street and Williamson Street. The handsome premises, formerly occupied by Henry Miles & Co., were thronged the whole time they were open, many no doubt attracted by the novel character of the business transacted. 6D is the highest price charged for any single article in the establishment, but the variety of articles obtainable is infinite. Though none were on sale, the goods were laid out ready for the commencement of business to-day, and occasioned the visitors considerable surprise in the matter of their exceptional value. Two orchestras were engaged in discoursing music yesterday, and there was a constant run on the tea room where the proprietors supplied free teas to all who were fortunate enough to reach the room through the crush."
The Woolworths experience included the introduction of American brands like Coca Cola and Hersheys to the British consumer. Woolworth's continued trailblazing in the UK, opening a Manchester store in 1910 and London flagship in 1913.
Larger flagship stores were established in several major cities, like their 1913 New York skyscraper headquarters, but most Woolworth locations remained smaller storefronts. By the time of Frank Woolworth’s death in 1919, his company spanned over 1,100 stores across the US and UK.
After Woolworth’s passing, the company continued expanding globally over the 20th century. It introduced lunch counters in the 1930s, pioneered self-service format stores and reached over 2,000 locations worldwide by the 1950s.
Woolworths "Five-and-Dime" concept became widely copied and Woolworths and their competitors became fixtures or "anchors" in downtown urban areas, suburban shopping areas and the growing American shopping malls in the 1950's to the 1970's. During this time, "Five-and-Dime" or the growing "Discount" stores (Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target) developed a reputation for driving local merchants out of business as the concept continued to expand.
By 1979, it's 100th anniversary, Woolworths was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest department store chain in the world. Increased competition led Woolworth's to begin declining at that time however. It attempted to diversify with the acquisition of Kinney Shoes in the 1960's, which eventually launched Stylco, Susie Casuals, and Foot Locker in 1974.
Woolworths launched Champs Sports (athletic), RX Place (drug stores), and Northern Exposure (cold weather apparel). It launched WoolCo stores and a smaller specialty store chain, Woolworth Express in shopping malls.
By 1997, Wal-Mart replaced Woolworths on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, signaling the shift of dominance from the original "Five-and-Dime" concept to the broader "Discount Store" landscape. The last US Woolworth’s stores closed that year (while the final UK branches shuttered in 2009), with the company changing its name to Venator, and then again in 2021 as Foot Locker, Incorporated.
The iconic name Woolworth name, persists on a very small number of unaffiliated variety stores in countries like Germany and Mexico that continue operations through licensing agreements with Foot Locker, as the modern incarnation of F.W. Woolworth & Co.
Did You Know?
Woolworth’s personal motto was “Nothing over 10 cents”. Until the 1910s, Woolworth's lineup strictly adhered to 5 & 10 cent price points only. Increased costs led Woolworth's to begin selectively introducing some 20 cent and above items after World War I while keeping most offerings under 10 cents. The first significant break came in the 1930s during the Great Depression when the store's directors decided to abandon the price ceiling and at that time sold items as high as $1.00.
Frank Woolworth pioneered the now-standard practice of buying wholesale from manufacturers to sell goods. More retailers relied on wholesalers or brokers rather than sourcing directly during that time. As Woolworth's rapidly expanded even across several entities, their collective buying power allowed them to keep costs down. Woolworth's practices later became standard among mass-merchandisers and big box chains.
Originally only cash transactions were allowed to keep costs down. Many retailers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did allow credit purchases, in contrast to Woolworth's cash-only rule. Competitors criticized Woolworth's "cash-and-carry" policy as outdated when credit was gaining popularity in the 1920's & 1930's. Woolworths resisted offering credit until after World War II when consumer credit expanded, experimenting with their own credit card in the early 1950's. But it wasn't until the late 1960s that Woolworths stores transitioned to accept more universal bank credit cards.
The Woolworth Building in NYC was once the tallest building in the world at 792 feet. Before the Woolworth Building, the record for world's tallest building was held by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in New York City at 700 feet tall. The Woolworth Building surpassed it in 1913, topping out at 792 feet tall and remained the world's tallest for 17 years until 1930. In 1930, the Chrysler Building in New York City opened and claimed the record at 1,046 feet tall. Later in 1931, the Empire State Building was completed at 1,250 feet tall, surpassing both Chrysler and Woolworth buildings. One additional note, the building was paid for in cash.
The Woolworths store lunch counter was one of the first integrated dining spots in the South in 1960. One of its major competitors, S.H. Kress & Co., founded in 1896 and which Woolworth's tried unsuccessfully to purchase in 1928, closed its lunch counters in 1964 to avoid integrating them under civil rights pressures. This damaged S.H. Kress' image and soon after they were purchased by Genesco and started liquidating their stores.
Woolworth's introduced British shoppers to a variety of popular American products, foods, and consumer goods, some for the first time. Some key examples of American products pioneered in the UK by Woolworths include Coca-Cola, Campbell's Soup, Kleenex, chewing gum brands like Wrigley's and Juicy Fruit, and candy bars like Hershey's, Mars, and Baby Ruth. Woolworth's also introduced the British to US comic books and pulp fiction magazines, affordable cosmetics, including lipsticks, nail polishes, perfumes, and phonograph records introducing American music like jazz and rock-and-roll.