By the end of the 1960’s, Woolco had finally picked up the pace of new store openings, with 33 stores opening in 1969 alone - adding up to 92 Woolco stores in the United States and 33 in Canada at the close of the decade. A few more multiple store markets, so critical for market presence and maximizing advertising dollars, were now part of the mix, including Atlanta and Houston (3 stores each), Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Florida (2 stores each). An even more ambitious program was put in place for 1970 and 1971, with 70 new stores slated, including additional units in Houston, Atlanta, Richmond and Toronto, and multiple stores in new markets Toledo, Miami and Sacramento, the first appearance of the Woolco name in California. Also, Woolco’s first (and only, for a while) store in the New England states would open in Bangor, Maine in 1970.
In 1971, F.W. Woolworth Co., Woolco’s parent company, made the somewhat surprising decision (to me, at least) to eliminate Woolco’s separate division status and consolidate the Woolco operation into the Woolworth variety store regional management structure. While this may have made sense on paper, I can’t help but ponder the psychological effect on Woolco managers – did it lessen their drive, knowing their operation was “lumped in” with the variety store operation, which despite Woolworth’s leadership position was by now widely considered be an antiquated retail concept? Within a few years, the shift in status would even be noticeable on Woolco’s shopping bags, of all things. By the mid-70’s, the bags sported both Woolworth and Woolco logos, with Woolco’s new stylized logo in the subordinate position. Multitudes of products were advertised on TV as being available “at Woolworth and Woolco stores”, in that order. Again, the comparison with S.S. Kresge couldn’t have been more striking, with the near totality of that company’s resources being invested in Kmart, to stunning results. And even Woolworth’s other longtime dime store competitors had jumped in by now – G.C. Murphy with its growing line of Murphy’s Marts and W.T. Grant Company’s 1972 vow to open only large “Grant City” department stores henceforth (sadly, it wouldn’t be enough to save Grants, but more later on that).
Another factor that would take on much more significance as the decade of the 70’s rolled on was Woolworth’s burgeoning specialty store business. In 1962, the Federal Trade Commission invalidated the six year old merger between Brown Shoe Company and the New York City–based G.R. Kinney Corporation (Kinney Shoes), the largest shoe store chain in America at the time, and the following year it was acquired by Woolworth. At the time, Kinney had 584 stores in a mix of locations – some downtown, but a large number in the all-important shopping centers and free-standing “roadside” sites in high-traffic areas. By 1971, as Kinney Shoe Corporation, a wholly-owned Woolworth subsidiary, the chain had grown to over 900 locations, with many of the new ones in enclosed shopping malls. Two successful nameplates (among a few less than successful ones) that were launched under the Kinney umbrella were Susie’s Casuals (1968), a fixture of 70’s-era malls, and Foot Locker (1974), which would be the eventual successor to the entire Woolworth organization. In 1968, Woolworth acquired Cleveland-based Richman Brothers, a 245-store men’s apparel chain. In line with a common practice of the day, both the Kinney and Richman operations had in-house manufacturing capacity, which allowed a higher degree of control over styles, manufacturing quality and pricing. Richman also operated men’s stores under two main banners (Woolworth would add a third called “Adams-Row”) beside its own – Stein Stores, a chain of southern apparel stores that it had acquired in 1959, and Anderson-Little, a Fall River, Massachusetts-based chain bought in 1966. My grandparents hauled my brother and me off to Anderson-Little at least once a year on our summer visits there, usually the Walnut Hill Plaza store in Woonsocket, RI or the one at the Auburn (Mass.) Mall. When I was fourteen, they bought us leisure suits there - brown for my brother, and a startling powder blue for mine. I’ve never been so anxious for a growth spurt in my life. Unfortunately, that suit was followed up with a forest green one (with a vest!) from JC Penney.
It would eventually become clear to most observers where Woolworth’s corporate priorities stood, and Woolco was not atop the list, nor was it in second place. As a Business Week article would later put it, “The (Woolco) discount unit slipped as specialty retailing got the principal attention”. The opportunity to profit from the immense volume the Woolco stores could have produced with a stronger effort, potentially multiples of what a successful chain of shoe stores or menswear shops would ever yield, was slowly allowed to slip away.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of the seventies, the arrival of a new Woolco store was happy event for any community they entered, with sizable crowds and the type of Grand Opening hoopla joyfully described on this site time and time again. Woolco’s slogan at the time was “a new fashion in modern retailing”, and the emphasis continued to be on apparel, which in light of the sister businesses described above isn’t surprising.
The photos above are circa 1968-70. The first one is a night exterior view of the Northtowne Plaza Woolco in Claymont (Wilmington), Delaware, which opened in 1968, followed by a daytime exterior of an unknown location (possibly the Town and Country Shopping Center Woolco in Marietta, Georgia, thanks to J.T. for mentioning that possibility) on its 1969 opening day, complete with a crowd, outdoor sale items, pennant streamers, a Wise Potato Chips truck, and a parking lot full of iron and not much plastic. The majority of the other shots depict the Asbury Park, New Jersey store (sorry, no Springsteen sightings) at its grand opening in 1970, including the main aisle crowd shots, the cosmetics department, the “Sweater Shack”, the (definitely analog) watch display, and the final photo, a peek under the “cheerful red-striped awning” of the Red Grille cafeteria. Five of the photos – the wide view of the front of the store, the checkout line (from those proud days when Woolco had “exclusive” shopping bags), "Miss Credit" (these people were big on beauty queens, weren't they?), the auto center view and the “University Shop” shirt section are of unknown locations.