Thursday, June 18, 2009

Woolworth's - The Largest Variety Store

On an icy winter’s night in 1963, the downtown Denver, Colorado Woolworth’s provides a warm oasis for shivering Christmas shoppers. Newly expanded to a huge 174,000 square feet, this store scarcely fit the traditional five-and-ten/dime store image with gold-lettered “red front” signboards above a quaint storefront that the name Woolworth’s conjures up to this day. (This impression persists despite scores of intricate art deco-exteriored Woolworth stores that opened in the 30‘s and 40’s.) If anything, the Denver store’s clean lines and imposing scale resembled the sprawling suburban mall department stores that by 1963 had come to symbolize the American Way.

Dubbed “The World’s Largest Variety Store” upon its grand reopening in October 1963, the downtown Denver location featured the typical Woolworth’s lineup of the time, albeit more of it. The store boasted “two miles of display counters” within “58 shops and departments offering more than fifty thousand items of goods for the entire family and whole home, ranging in price from a few pennies to upward of one hundred dollars”. These departments carried apparel for the whole family, housewares and home furnishings, garden, pet, camera and music shops, and of course toys. Also in-house were a “utility bill-paying station” and total restaurant/luncheonette seating capacity of 700 (!) people. Within the restaurant area was a sandwich counter, named the “Chuck Wagon” in salute to “Colorado’s famous livestock industry”. Of course, the western theme was stretched a bit with the addition of hoagies and pizza to the menu. (I was tempted to say “git along, little hoagie”, but thought better of it.)

One thing becomes obvious when reading Woolworth’s press releases from that time. Despite having launched a new chain of discount stores the previous year, Woolco, large variety stores like the Denver unit were the company’s pride and joy. They would continue to be the organization’s main focus for many years to come. Woolworth’s main competitor, S.S. Kresge Company, took a very different attitude. Kresge made it abundantly clear that their Kmart discount chain, also introduced in 1962, would be that company’s top priority. Within just a few short years, the Kmart program would have a transformative effect on the Kresge company, as it eventually would on mass merchandising in general. By comparison, Woolworth’s approach to Woolco seemed more tentative.

The story of the F.W.Woolworth Company is deeply woven into the American cultural fabric. Frank Winfield Woolworth’s company was founded with a single store that opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1879. Initially known as the “Great 5-cent Store”, it wouldn’t become a “five-and ten” until the following year, when the company began to carry higher priced goods. By 1886, the company had grown to seven stores, which now featured the soon-to-be-famous “red front” facades. That same year, Woolworth opened his new company headquarters in Manhattan. By 1900, Woolworth was operating 59 stores with total annual sales of $5 million. In 1909, the first British Woolworth stores (“three and sixes” as opposed to “five-and-dimes”) were opened. Woolworth sought unique ways to be of service to his customers, and one of the more successful ones was to introduce fabrics and other fine goods from Europe into his stores, at prices the general public could afford. Prior to that time, these goods were out of the reach of many American pocketbooks.

A huge advance in the company’s growth came in 1912, when Woolworth consolidated his 319 stores with three northeastern variety chains - S. H. Knox and Co., F.M. Kirby and Co., E.P. Charlton and Co., and the stores previously held by his brother Charles S. Woolworth and by W.H. Moore. The new company was formally incorporated on January 12, 1912 as “F.W. Woolworth Company”, with a total of 596 stores across the entire country, and stock was offered to the public. The Woolworth organization was in place, and through much of the 20th century would be a dominant force in American business. Woolworth and The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company became widely acknowledged as the twin behemoths of retailing. A year later, the magnificent 60-story Woolworth Building would open in New York City, the tallest building in the world at the time. President Woodrow Wilson ceremonially turned on the building’s lights for the first time, from a telegraph key in the White House.

The company continued to prosper despite Frank Woolworth’s passing in 1919. Ten years later, Woolworth would celebrate its 50th Anniversary with over 2,200 stores and $303 million in sales. Three years before that, in 1926, the first Woolworth units had opened in Germany, which would prove to be an important market for the company. The ten-cent price cap was doubled to twenty cents in 1932, and three years later, price ceilings would be done away with altogether. Woolworth’s would begin to stock all manner of goods, even featuring jewelry in some locations.

In the 1950’s, two major changes in American retailing forced themselves on Woolworth’s, and the company was smart enough to go with the flow on both. The first was the “self-service” trend, and the second was the shift away from downtown store locations toward suburban shopping malls and strip centers. In the mid-50’s, Woolworth closed in on nearly 3,000 stores, and many older stores were modernized. Another key international market, Mexico, was entered in 1956.

Through the entire decade of the 1950’s another trend gained traction, and by the early 60’s was akin to an unstoppable train – the emergence of the large, suburban discount store. By then, the success of the northeast-based discount chains – E.J. Korvette, Zayre, Topps and many others, along with the challenges this new type of store would present to the variety chains had become the cocktail conversation of the retail industry. In a September 1961 New York Times article, Woolworth president Robert C. Kirkwood outlined his company’s plans to open a nationwide chain of department stores under the name “Woolco”. Plans for 17 initial stores were announced, with the first store to open in Columbus, Ohio in the spring of 1962. Mr. Kirkwood told the Times “It is our goal to have the largest chain of discount stores in America”.

As it turned out, Woolworth wasn’t alone in that goal.

The Woolworth promotional photos above are from 1963 and 1964. The first four depict scenes from the Denver, Colorado store mentioned above, showing the store exterior, ladies’ and mens’ departments and the “Chuck Wagon” sandwich counter. The rest of the photos are from various Woolworth stores. Shown are the home d├ęcor section, with mirrors, tasteful paintings and groovy “starburst” clocks, followed by the bedding, paint and sewing departments.

The last three photos show the only departments that would have concerned me in my youth. (Well, I guess I’d have to count the restaurant as well!) The “music shop” and record department, which features two Kingsmen (“Louie, Louie”) albums and the soundtrack to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” film (half of that album was made up of instrumentals – I had the 8-track in the early 70’s), the very colorful toy department, and finally, the place I would have been guaranteed to spend every possible minute - and every possible dime I could wheedle out of my folks – the book department, with its fine selection of Mad paperback books. These were collections of articles that had previously appeared in Mad Magazine. If you were into those, and precious few my age weren’t, click on the enlargement and dig the classic titles – “Fighting Mad”, “Son of Mad”, “The Mad Frontier”, “Mad in Orbit”, “The Organization Mad”, and among others, my all-time favorite – “We’re Still Using That Greasy Mad Stuff”. In an affirmation of my good taste (or lack of it), this book appears in the 1966 movie version of “Fahrenheit 451”, where it's burned up along such other classics as Jane Eyre, Othello and Wuthering Heights.

I know. “News you can use”, right?

28 comments:

  1. Kresge had aggressively gone into suburban complexes, too, but closed many of those stores in the early 60s. Often they and Woolworth were in the same plazas. Woolworth had stores in many 1st generation malls, but most of their mall stores after the 60s were in small markets. My guess is that mall owners may have marginalized themas they began to put more emphasis on apparel lines and "fashion" and Woolworth was less successful in these areas. Toys, school supplies, stationary items, and party goods were their enduring draws. At one time, they experimented with having Herald Square stationary and card stores in malls built around these lines.

    Woolworth did sell numbers of their urban neighborhood and small town locations from the 50s into the 70s, but not as aggressively as Kresge would. Often these went to second tier chains like Neisner or became Ben Franklins.

    Despite the size of the Denver store, the biggest volume Woolworth, for many years was the one in downtown San Francisco.

    Their move into larger stores usually focused on expanded apparel departments, which would have been higher margin than their other merchandise, but this never caught on very much. WT Grant had refocused itself on softlines and had somewhat more success, initially.

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  2. I want to go there and shop for all the record albums. WOW! What a selection. Very, very cool! Great post!

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  3. By the time I got to enjoy Woolworth's the glory days were numebering but they still bring back good memories for me. I actually started reading "Poor Little Rich Girl" which is an old book about the life of Barbara Hutton, interesting read.

    I love those starburst clocks! I see one all the time at a bank branch I go to that is probably circa 1960s build.

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  4. The photos are wonderful! Woolworth and Woolco were my favorite stores at an early age (followed very closely by G.C. Murphy) and I always felt they were the best of the variety and discount chains at the time. The striped floors in the Woolworth pictures instantly reminded me of Woolco's striped floors, which were very similar.

    At the same time, seeing these photos makes me a little sad, because I know this is the era where the wheels came off Woolworth's bus. Supersizing a downtown store, impressive as it was, in 1963 was a gross miscalculation. While the regional malls were still about a decade away from prominence, it was clear that retail trends were moving away from a large central location in a city to multiple centers spread throughout the city. Woolworth's own Woolco stores helped lead the charge to the suburbs.

    Woolworth was a victim of its own success. The business model worked so well that they were unable to see past it until it was too late. More nimble competitors put them out of business because they had a better understanding of the modern shopper.

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  5. Yet there were often standard Woolworth stores placed in the same shopping centers as Woolco (as was done in Phoenix)

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  6. Anonymous - Thanks for that great analysis. I'm curious, was "Herald Square" a Woolworth house brand? I can remember a few office products items around our house with that brand when I was young.

    I've seen many pictures over that years of the famous San Francisco Woolworth's on the corner of Powell and Market.

    Richard, Glad you liked it! The record departments were always such a draw at these stores.

    Didi- Money sure didn't buy happiness in Barbara Hutton's case. Her lifestyle was certainly a contrast to the typical middle-America Woolworth's shopper! I like the starburst clocks also, just don't know where one would look right in the house.

    Steven - I agree with a lot of what you're saying. While spending tons of money upgrading downtown stores like this to huge footprints paid off in the short term, you can't help but feel they would have been better off spreding it around a bit, or putting it into Woolco. There were many dead downtowns in the 70's that sported huge, light traffic Woolworth stores.

    Jamcool - I have a picture of the Phoenix Woolworth/Woolco that I'm planning to put on here next time around.

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  7. Ahh, Dave, I noted this in previous post from a while back, here it is again. I recall the large Woolworth store as a child at Powell & Market Street in San Francisco in ground floor and basement of the locally famous Flood Building: http://www.floodbuilding.com/ It was huge! Even in the 1970's.

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  8. Not a huge fan due to the chintzy merchandise common at both formats.

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  9. I would love to step into these pictures and go shopping. The clock department has the exact type of clock to brighten up the blank wall in my retro kitchen.

    What's funny is that I know the Denver area, but can't place the building... are there any Denverites who could tell me what's there now? I'm more familiar with shopping the old Downtown Providence location as well as the one at Garden City Center in Cranston, RI (which had become a Borders Bookstore before I moved away... but we're going back 6 years... who knows what's there now).

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  10. Another unbelievably great, one-of-a-kind store pic to be found here! Really rivals the discount stores of that period in many ways. And I thought the location in Hastings, Nebraska was as big as they ever got!

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  11. Most of us here would love to be able to shop such a store, but as Steven pointed out in 1963 this was a gross miscalculation, even overkill. Denver's downtown area remained more viable than that of many cities of its size well into the 70's, and the 90's comeback of downtown Denver ended a much briefer decline that that of many of cities. May-D&F had a modern downtown store as Denver aggressively sought to keep downtown viable in the face of suburban development, so the choice of Denver for this store was not completely short sighted.

    But Woolworth's stock is one of the few that never regained its pre-1929 value, a dubious distinction, as Foot Locker, previously Venator, is the successor company.

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  12. I shopped at the Powell and Market store back in the late 80s...
    It was a huge and very cool store.

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  13. Herald Square was Woolworth's house brand for stationary items.

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  14. How did Woolworth's evolved in Montreal, Quebec, Canada ?

    1- Stores on the street: 3 on Ste-Catherine Street, one on St-Jacques (Financial District) then on St-Hubert, Mont-Royal Avenue, Masson Street, Somerled Avenue, Sherbrooke Street West (NDG), Wellington Street, Notre Dame Street in Lachine, Decarie Blvd in St-Laurent, Queen Mary Avenue...

    2-Stores on Shopping strips: Well, Woolworth got its shopping center push by none other than... Steinberg's ! The food giant built shopping centers at the time, with some exceptions (like Zellers and United Stores), most of the Steinberg's owned shopping centers featured a Woolworths...

    Then most of them dissapeared until the downfall... But Woolworth's was mostly a great part of my childhood memories...

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  15. Mr. Bluelight - Thanks - great history behind the Flood Building.

    Danny - Chintzy, a lot of it was. But always colorful!

    Dr. D. - Hopefully someone from the Denver area can fill us in on the fate of the store.

    Those Starburst clocks were "leave it at the curb, maybe somebody will take it" items a few years back, now they sell for big bucks. The designs are finally appreciated.

    David - Glad you like it, and you're right, it's sheer size was actually bigger than most discount stores.

    Ken - One thing definitely got right was going with Denver instead of one of the declining Eastern cities. It probably remained healthier than most.

    Anonymous 1 - Would love to have seen it myself.

    Anonymous 2 - Re Herald Square, thanks!

    Claude - Thanks for that great info on the Montreal Woolworth stores. It's my understanding that a number of Woolcos later became Zellers stores.

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  16. Thanks for posting the photos of the downtown Denver Woolworth's. I have so many memories of time spent in the store. When I moved to Denver in 1982, I went to work for a national photography company that did children's and family photographs at major retail chains. The downtown Denver Woolworth store frequently came up on our schedule. I worked on a commission basis, and although I rarely earned much at this store, I always INSISTED that I be assigned to work the photography shoots and post-sales. I got to know the employees and customers quite well during the ensuing years. We were always set up beneath the escalators in the lower (basement) level of the store. Many years later I worked for another company with offices in downtown Denver. I shopped at Woolworth's during its going out of business sale in 1993. It was sad to witness the death of such an iconic store. I still experience pangs of sadness when I go past the building. So many memories are tied up there.

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  17. Jaydog – Thanks for sharing those great memories and the poignant story of working at this grand store in its latter days. I can relate to the desire to work at this location over newer, possibly more lucrative, yet certainly less interesting and enriching locations. You can’t put a price on memories. Thanks again!

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  18. Wow, memories! I worked at the downtown Woolworth's in Denver the summer of 1973 in the 'Plants and Pet's Department'. I was only 19 yrs old and had gone to Denver all by myself from NE Wisconsin. I was fortunate I worked for a really nice older woman and good co-workers. I remember a Dave and a Wendy I think. Great memories of selling fish, gerbels and African Violet plants (they were a fave of little old ladies). Thanks, Jayne, Madison, WI

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  19. I have such great memories of shopping at Woolworths in East Boston Mass in the 1960's when I was a young child. The toy department was amazing! Please post more Woolworth pictures of different stores. Thank you for your dedication to this blog.

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  20. What was the address of this Woolworth

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  21. Dr. D and Anonymous: The building still stands, at 15th/Champa. I believe it's mostly telecom/datacenter space now.

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  22. I worked at this Woolworth store as stock clerk from 1971-74, and then again from 1979-82 as a merchandiser, over its pets, plants, Christmas, gift, lamps and pictures (those areas covered the bottom 3rd of the huge store. It had four floors, two of which were devoted entirely to stock, and employed probably 30 people, and was packed to the rafters with merchandise, a huge conveyor belt system. When boxes got stuck in the chute which went from the 4th to the basement, one of us had to clamber inside and ride down the stainless slide the entire way to unstick it. What a ride! When I came back in the 1980s to work, the staff upstairs had been reduced to two or three people, and no longer were there stock clerks to check merchandise in, nor 6 ladies ata desk doing paperwork.

    During my time there, the 16th street mall was built, and I remember mice coming in through the downstairs cafeteria and terrorizing little old ladies as they ran across aisles to get to the birdseed in the pet department.

    The first manager I worked for there was Lou Chance,who had retired by the time I was there the second time.

    It also had a large employee cafeteria on the third floor. Payday in the early 70s, we received cash in an envelope.

    It was a fascinating place to work, and a great place to shop.
    When I left the company due to the death of my father, the manager called me upstairs and handed me a thousand dollars to help out. I'll never forget that kindness. That seemed a fortune to me at the time, and helped me get re-established when I moved back to Colorado Springs.

    Thanks,
    Chris Lee
    Winter Park, Florida

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  23. I sure do miss Woolworth's, I worked in the Silver Spring, Maryland store on Flower Avenue, 1978.

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  24. My dad said that there were underground apartments at the Woolworth's in downtown Denver. I've looked everywhere, but can't seem to find any info on it. Do you know anything about it? He swaid they went about 2/3 stories down.

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  25. Jayne- Glad this brought some of the memories back for you! That’s an interesting combination –plants and pets! ;)

    Seems like potted African Violets were really popular in the 70’s, and not just with little old ladies. We had a few of them out on the porch of our apartment when I was a kid. Thanks again!

    Anonymous 1 – I hope to post more in depth on the great variety chains (of which Woolworth’s was king) at some point. Glad you liked this, and thanks for your kind comment. Sorry to be so long in responding!

    Anonymous 2 – “tiddleywink” had it right – 15th and Champa.

    Tiddleywink – Thanks!

    Chris – Thanks for those great details from your years at the Denver Woolworth’s - what a massive store, like a city in itself! “Riding the chute” – scary but cool! The stuff that memories are made of. And being paid in cash as late as the early 70’s – amazing. Somehow I feel this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as your stories of working there are concerned!

    The $1000 gift in the wake of your father’s passing – wow, what a moving story. That was a very significant amount of money in those days, not to minimize it now. One of those kindnesses one would never forget in life.

    Thanks again for sharing with us!

    Adrienne – No doubt there were similarities between the Silver Spring and Denver stores, excepting the size of course. You’re certainly not alone on missing them. Thanks for the comment!

    Danielle - I’ve never seen anything in print about apartments in the Denver Woolworth building. Woolworth’s 1963 annual report describes the store portion as “occupying three stories above ground level”. It wasn’t uncommon for large downtown stores to feature apartment space in those days, however. Maybe one of the folks who worked there can shed some light on this for us!

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  26. I remember one Christmas Eve at the Woolworths in Oil City Pa. The store was just about to close for the day when a young boy showed up. He had 50 cents to buy his Mom a present and you knew from his clothing he was from a poor family. The manager a Mr. Palmer took the boy around the store and when he was finished he had more gifts then he could carry, and all for 50cents! Mr Palmer asked me to drive a very happy young boy home to what was to be a most memorable Christmas.

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  27. I worked at Woolworth in at the food service counter that big windows faced 15th street in Down Town Denver. I shall never forget the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I was working at the back of the food service counter, and a customer sitting in a booth near the windows had a transistor radio, and heard the tragic news. Another waitress who was always telling jokes came to the back of the counter and told us about the assassination, and no one believed her. One of the customers sitting at the counter near me, turned on a transistor radio and we heard the news. Everyone I saw, had a strange look on their face, some people got up and walked away, some customers put money down on the counter and did not wait for change they just in shock walked away. Shortly after that the storm manager came on the public address system and announced the news, then told us the store would be closed for three days in honor of President Kennedy. I stood for a few minutes letting what I had heard and what I was seeing sink in, then I made my way to the employees area, collected my belongings and left to catch the buss home. The buses were crowded, but the mood was somber. Later many of the department stores downtown draped their windows with black. It was several days before even the movie theaters opened again in downtown Denver.
    Joan

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  28. I worked for Woolworth for 38 yrs I started in High School PT worked my way to Bookkeeper and would do it all over again. The employees were hard working old timers and would very good to customers. Managers treated every one with respect. We mdid not make a lot of money but we were proud of what we did and happy

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