The Wonder of Woolworths Begins its Meteoric Rise

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: February 22, 1878
Location: New York City, New York, USA

The first “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” was opened on this day in New York. But although the company would go on to become one of the greatest retail success stories of the 20th century, the original Big Apple business failed. It was not until a new store was opened in Pennsylvania the following year that the wonder of Woolworth began to take off.

The man behind it all was Frank Winfield Woolworth who, as a 15-year-old in 1852, gave up working on his father’s farm for a job in a shop. He was soon put in charge of display and stock management and set up a table on which everything cost five cents.

The idea proved so popular that he branched out on his own and the five-cent store was born. Ten cent lines were added in 1881, creating the first Five and Ten Cent store chain.

At the height of its success, the company owned 3,000 stores across the world generating a vast fortune for Frank Woolworth who was able, in 1914, to pay cash for the 792-foot tall Woolworth Building in New York, then the highest building in the world.

Frank said that he could trace his roots back to Cambridgeshire in England and was very keen to expand his retail empire into the old country. This he did in 1909, opening his first store in Liverpool, later to become famous as the home of the Beatles. The UK operation proved to be even more successful and profitable than the US parent and by the mid-1920s a new Woolworths store was opening in Britain every 17 days.

But the emergence and growth of self-service supermarkets after the Second World War and a management decision to move away from the five-and-ten-cent philosophy proved to be the ultimate death-knell for the chain. By the 1960s, the new retailers were eating into its market share and the decline continued until the 1990s when the US stores were either sold off or shut down. The UK operation outlived its US parent but its collapse in 2008 was far more dramatic. It went from normal trading in 800 stores to complete shutdown in just 41 days.

The latest hit records were always one of the popular products available at any Woolworths store and it is noteworthy that as Frank Woolworth chose the 22nd February to make his mark on the world, so did another legend. On that day in 1956 Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel entered the charts and began its rise to the top.

Published: April 25, 2016

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