Within a five-month span in 1962, the modern discount store industry was born. In March, S.S. Kresge Co. opened the first Kmart store in Garden City, Michigan. In May, the first Target store was opened in Roseville, Minnesota by the Dayton Company, an old-line Minneapolis department store firm. In June, F.W. Woolworth Co. opened the first of its Woolco discount department stores in Columbus, Ohio. And yes, there was one more – in July, an Arkansas-based Ben Franklin franchisee opened “something called a Wal-Mart”, as he would later put it. Few people outside his home state would hear about that guy for years, though.
In September 1961, Woolworth announced its selection of Columbus, Ohio as the location of the first Woolco store. Woolworth chairman Robert C. Kirkwood explained his rationale to the press: “Columbus, with its tremendous growth potential and long-range plans for continuing industrial development, is an ideal location to make our entry into the low-profit, mass merchandising field". (“Low-profit” was a standard industry term among discounters in those days.)
On June 6, 1962, the first Woolco store, a 106,000 square foot unit, opened at Columbus’ Great Southern Shopping Center. It made for a wild scene, as reported by The New York Times the next day - “4,000 to 5,000 persons crowded inside in the first hour, (and) long lines formed at the eighteen checkout counters.” The center’s 5,000 spot parking lot filled to capacity by noon. Of course (we’re talking 1962 here) there was the element of spectacle that was part and parcel of Grand Openings at the time- the mayor of Columbus presented Woolworth chairman Kirkwood with the key to the city, for one thing. There was also a special display of jewelry, including a necklace valued at $1,000,000, which sported the “80.3 carat Portuguese Diamond… that drew sighs of amazement from housewives pushing shopping carts past the display. Store officials conceded that they did not expect to find a buyer for the necklace”.
Though every other item was well below the million dollar price point, the Woolco format did allow the company to carry much higher-ticket items than their Woolworth’s variety store counterparts, whose lineup generally capped-out at the $100 mark, with only a handful items going for anywhere near that . The NYT article cited a $3,000 necklace (much more reasonable, don’t you think?), a $649.74 refrigerator and a $448 TV/stereo console as examples. The higher priced goods were the result of the much wider product offering the discount store format allowed, owing mainly to the greatly expanded floor space. The previous September, Mr. Kirkwood went so far as to tell the Wall Street Journal that “Less than 5% of Woolco merchandise will be the variety store types”. The Woolco stores would have “appliances, drugs, auto supplies (and service), men’s wear and other departments not in the variety stores”. There would also be expanded lineups of shoes, sporting goods, jewelry and other items. Many of these departments would be handled by outside lessees, as per standard discount store practice at the time. A much greater emphasis would be placed on credit sales, a huge revenue opportunity for the company (and ultimately a huge headache for many a consumer) that fit the “big-ticket discounter” much better than it did the good old “dime store”. And then there was the food – the “Red Grille” cafeterias would be standard features of every Woolco store – not at all surprising, considering Woolworth earned a impressive 10% of its total revenue from in-store restaurant sales.
The name “Woolco”, incidentally, wasn’t new at all. It had served as a Woolworth private brand name since at least the 1920’s, featured on everything from sewing supplies to 78 rpm records to tins of candy. Most often it appeared inside the form of an elongated diamond logo, later adapted and modified for use as an early logo for the discount stores, where it was displayed prominently on interior signage.
Interestingly, out of the seven Woolco stores opened during its founding year, 1962, four of them were located in Canada. In addition to a second Columbus Woolco (pictured above) and one in Richmond, Virginia, the four Canadian stores opened that year were located in Brantford, Sudbury, Hamilton and Windsor, Ontario. The company would continue to open a high percentage of its new Woolco store base in Canada over the next few years.
Woolworth’s initial assessment of the first seven Woolco stores was positive, if a bit low-key – after a year of operation, the stores “had reached or surpassed the goals of public acceptance set for them”. No million-dollar necklace sales needed.
The first two photos shown above are vintage Woolworth publicity shots, showing the distinctive I-beam sign structure and zig-zag awning the chain used during its first couple of years of existence - Corpus Christi, Texas, opened in March 1964 at Greater Parkdale Plaza , and Phoenix, Arizona (Hayden Plaza West), which opened the following month. Note the Woolworth’s store to the left of the new Woolco.
The rest of the photos depict the Woolco store at the Graceland Shopping Center, the second Woolco unit in Columbus, Ohio. This store opened in early October, 1962, some ten miles north of the first Columbus Woolco store. Photos 3 through 7 were taken in 1970, and the last photo was taken in 1966, when the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales were in town. (Does this kind of thing ever happen at shopping centers anymore? I think I know the answer.) A very special thanks goes to George Campbell, Columbus-area native and historian, for the use of these photos. George has an excellent website devoted to the area’s history. There is a special section devoted to the history of the Graceland Shopping Center, including shots of a Big Bear store and a Colonial Stores-era Albers Supermarket, along with a special Woolco section that brings us up to date on the building’s history. Also, check out his Flickr photostream for more great historic photos!