Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Woolco Of Our Dreams

The photos above, dating from 1964 through 1966 and showing scenes from several different stores, paint a fairly complete picture of the typical Woolco store from the chain’s 1962 launch through the early 70’s, when they introduced a new image. When these publicity photos were taken, the look was fresh and clean, and although simple, was in keeping with the style of the times. Ten years later, well…

In 1964, when Woolco’s national coverage was still extremely light and there was no significant penetration in any major market, the company made the decision to introduce a compact version of their standard store layout for secondary markets (population 25,000 to 75,000). While the typical Woolco store size varied from anywhere between 100,000 to 140,000 square feet, the smaller units would be 70 to 80,000 square feet, yet would carry a full line, including the auto center and Red Grille cafeteria. The first of the “mini-Woolcos” opened in 1964 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, with other units immediately following in Columbus, Mississippi and Kinston, North Carolina.

Around the same time, Woolworth introduced another store banner, the short-lived “Worth Marts”. These stores were basically conversions of older Woolworth’s stores that were still under lease, but had been supplanted by Woolco stores or newer, larger Woolworth’s units. The program bore several similarities to S.S. Kresge’s “Jupiter” store line, especially the merchandise mix, which emphasized fast-moving staple goods. Twenty-seven units were slated for conversion to Worth Mart stores in 1964.

In 1966, the pace of growth accelerated, with Woolco’s store count doubling from 27 to 52 units by the end of the year. By now, a number of cities had multiple Woolco stores - Columbus, Ohio with three stores, Phoenix, Denver, Memphis and Louisville each with two. Two years after that, in 1968, Woolco had two stores each in the New Orleans, Atlanta , Dallas and Houston areas, three in Charlotte, and a third was added in Memphis. Still, there were no stores in many Woolworth strongholds such as Chicago, for example, nor were there any at all in California’s mushrooming markets.

In contrast, Kresge had nearly 300 Kmarts by 1968, and was adding over 60 per year. More than matching Woolco’s store density in their existing markets and with particular strength in the areas Woolco was nowhere to be seen, the die was pretty well cast between the two companies by the mid-60’s. Kmart was clearly seen as Kresge’s future, while Woolworth continued to hedge their bets.

One area in which Woolworth did continue to invest heavily was the Canadian Woolco program. As mentioned, four of the seven stores opened during Woolco’s first year, 1962, were in Ontario. Nova Scotia, Alberta and British Columbia were entered in 1964, Saskatchewan in 1965, Quebec and Manitoba in 1966, Newfoundland in 1967 and New Brunswick in 1968. Thus, after six years of existence, Woolco had 27 stores in Canada, covering every province except Prince Edward Island - so I guess “Anne of Green Gables” didn’t shop at Woolco. (I threw that last line in for my wife and daughter, who occasionally read this thing.) Claude of the “Ghost of Steinberg’s” Flickr page, a great collection of photos of Steinberg’s supermarkets and Miracle Mart discount stores, has kindly brought us up to date on the fate of many of the Canadian Woolco stores. You can read it in the comments section of this previous post.

The locations of the scenes pictured are unknown to me, with the exception of the first one, an artist’s rendering of the East Brunswick, New Jersey Woolco, which opened in 1964, and the fifth (the “Ladies Apparel” section), which was taken at the Azalea Mall Woolco in Richmond, Virginia. Note the Red Grille with its “familiar red-and-white striped awning” in back of the jewelry and camera departments, and the tan cloth pool table and pin setting machines in the sporting goods section. I especially like the camping setup, with the pop-up trailer and galvanized steel Igloo cooler (and a male mannequin, for cryin’ out loud!). It was a great day when I figured out how to set up my Coleman stove.


  1. You are correct regarding Saskatchewan -- 1965 is when Northgate Mall opened (the store I mentioned that still had the old Woolco logo on it nearly 30 years later.) It was anchored by Woolco and Safeway.

    The other Regina store opened in 1975, in Southland Mall. In fact, on the day I was born, Southland was in the midst of its grand opening week. So it must have been fate that brought me to work there 19 years later helping convert it to a Wal-Mart! (Claude mentioned in the earlier post that Woolco stores in Quebec were often paired with Dominion stores -- that was the case at Southland until Dominion withdrew from Western Canada in the mid 80s. That location became a Safeway.)

    In the early 2000s the Northgate Wal-Mart closed, and was replaced by a freestanding store at the corner of Pasqua and Rochdale. Zellers immediately moved into the space and did the first extensive exterior renovations to the store in more than 35 years!

    And it's just been confirmed that the Southland store will be closing, likely early next year, when a new Walmart Supercentre opens at the Grasslands retail development at Lewvan Drive and Gordon Road. Zellers may very well take over the space, since it closed its south Regina location, in the Golden Mile Centre, back in the late 90s in the face of the competition from the Boys from Bentonville.

  2. That male mannequin is a hottie! What can I say? LOL!

    In all seriousness, great color photos, Dave! Just wondering why didn't Woolworth try out Woolco in Chicago? Fear of too much competiton, perhaps?

  3. K-Mart tended to open several stores at once when they entered a sizable market. It might have taken several years before they came back to open more, but it was a better strategy in terms of building name recognition and efficiently using media buys. Woolworth built fewer and fewer variety stores over time, as malls became less interested in them, but I'd imagine that they came to overlap a lot with the Woolcos they built--probably a lot like the smaller stores, but without the auto center and with more emphasis on soft lines.

    It's odd that Woolco didn't go for more effort at opening stores several at a time in different places. K-Mart was hardly alone with this strategy. Zayre and Topps, among others, also used this approach to entering new markets.

    Still, Woolworth had greater coverage in some places than others with their variety stores--they had many stores in Cleveland and Chicago, but rather few in places like Toledo and Indy. Kresge closed a lot of stores early in the K-Mart launch but still kept quite a few going after that. The closings probably gave them either cash or tax benefits that would have helped with the costs of launching K-Mart.

  4. Great pictures! It's too bad the Woolco stores I was familiar with as a youth weren't as well-merchandised as the stores in those pictures!

  5. Any idea why the 'Paint' sign is, like, three times as large as all the other signs? I'm scratching my head on this one. Was Woolco famous for their paint selection?

  6. The locations of the scenes pictured are unknown to me, with the exception of the first one, an artist’s rendering of the East Brunswick, New Jersey Woolco, which opened in 1964 ...
    Interesting that they dumped the "zig zag" canopy and porcelain-paneled store design so quickly after launching it in 1962. Looks like I must not have been the only one who wasn't too keen on its aestetics!

  7. Interesting that they dumped the "zig zag" canopy and porcelain-paneled store design so quickly after launching it in 1962. Looks like I must not have been the only one who wasn't too keen on its aestetics!

    When the Highway Beautification Act was voted into law in the mid Sixties, a lot of the more outlandish sign designs disappeared. The thought was that the nation's highways would be more beautiful without the neon and "googie" influences that permeated commercial design. It was easy (and cheap) to replace the Woolco sign structure and zig-zag canopy with a flatter roof and stone veneer.

    Our first local Woolcos in Roanoke (Crossroads Mall) and Charlottesville featured the more subdued exterior design.

  8. I doubt that highway beautification had much to do it it. The zigzig was briefly popular in the late 50s and early 60s--mostly likely it proved to be difficult to maintain--paint discoloration, leaks and corrosion in the bottoms of the Vs. Because Woolco tended to locate in shopping centers, unlike its competition, they also probably needed a design that could fit in with the bland brick fronts with a uniform overhang that was common. Porcelain also fell out of favor in this time--I wonder if it was cost or maintanance. Gas stations and some retail chains like Jewel had made very heay use of that material and then suddenly dropped it.

  9. Hi Dave

    Thanks for the comments, gladly appreciated.

    I forgot again one Woolco, but this one was built on what was due to be Montreal's first "Dead Mall".

    It was built on the now-borough of St-Laurent, on Cote Vertu Boulevard corner Transcanada Highway, on the west end near Trudeau (Dorval) Airport.

    Built as an extension to a furniture store (Pascal's), Woolco was added with a Steinberg's store. It was built in 1973. However, a bad omen would seal the fate of this mall.

    Cambridge Investments were building many suburban shopping malls. One block east of the Bazar Mall (which was sadly call) would be the future "Place Vertu" mall, complete with Sears, Hudson's Bay, Dominion supermarket and Kmart !

    This Woolco store suffered a lot for this add-on (as well as Steinberg's too). In my knowledge, it was the first ever Woolco store to close. It made way for a former "Club Price" (Costco Warehouse) which still had the Woolco facade, but entrance was inside since this is a "Members Only" store.

    Steinberg's had the same problem, however, since they were Club Price shareholders at the time, they turned the supermarket into "Jadis" (translated for French as "Yesterday"... can you imagine better name ?), which was a discount food store.

    The fate of "Bazar" Shopping Center is now a "power center". The former Woolco has become some warehouse, however the facade remained the same...

    Thanks for this precious add-on.

  10. Great pictures, and one of my favorite threads to date!
    Now, can someone explain the difference between Ladies Wear, Ladies Fashions, and Ladies Apparel? ;)

  11. I worked at the Woolco in Fredericton, NB and stayed on with Wal-Mart til 1998. I really didn't mourn the loss of the Woolco brand... our store was very ratty, with the fixtures, floors and decor being leftovers from the 70's. I actually remember finding merchandise from the 70's under some of the fixtures, in 1992 or so. There was a sad air of disrepair to the place, with flickering lighting, broken tiles and frayed carpet.

    Although I missed the loss of the Red Grille and the deli counter, the Wal-Mart takeover was the best thing that could have happened at the time - most of the Woolco stores survived the transition, and the Canadian operation became one of the most profitable in the Wal-Mart empire. After the transition, the store (back then) was much cleaner and better run.

  12. Regarding Steven's comments about the large sign for Paint, I too wonder why. Over the years I've talked with employees of both Kmart and Walmart, and both say paint is not a big mover. I often wonder if it's a high margin item or if the deal with one brand of paint is used to promote the department. For example, Home Depot has its deal with Behr, and along with the fact that I suspect even in the 60's hardware stores and home improvement stores were the stores that handled the largest volume of paint.

    One of the things that the blogs on Woolco point out is that Woolco ultimately was more successful in Canada than in the US, surviving until being bought by Walmart. On the other hand, Kmart became the premier US discounter while its Canadian fortunes were lackluster until its sell to Zeller's(which had been associated with the US chain Grants, and is now analogous as the Canadian version of Target).

    Woolworth survived past Woolco's demise in the US, while Woolco outlasted Woolworth in Canada. This brings to light that had Woolworth concentrated its efforts on Woolco the way Kresge did Kmart, today's discount store arena would be drastically differnt, albeit there would be little to differentiate Woolco from Kmart to the contemporary customer.

  13. @Blaise from NB: I do agree with you about how Woolco stores were better after the Wal-Mart takeover, many of them were run-down. I was not encouraged to go to a store.

    Dave: another note from somebody who wrote to me from Sept-îles, Quebec. Told me there was a Woolco there which is now a Wal-Mart. Steinberg's used to be the food anchor, now replaced by Loblaws'discount food chain Maxi.

    Forgot also that St-Eustache's former Woolco was built at the local shopping center to replace a run-down Zellers by the end of the 70s (the mall expanded in the old Zellers spot, the Woolco was in a new add-on with a multi level parking). Food anchor was a long established Steinberg's (now a IGA) there since 1968. Due to a move in 2007 to a freestanding localisation 2 miles north, the former Woolco is now a Sears...

  14. Woolco did open stores in Chicago area, one was in Villa Park. But, they were not open very long.

  15. Geoff – I would love to have seen a Woolco/Safeway combination. I don’t know if we had any in the states. Interesting how you ended up working at the store that opened on your birthday! Woolco stuck it out in Canada much longer than they did here – I’m sure there were many factors involved in that, but I wonder if their level of commitment in Canada in the early had a more lasting effect on shoppers’ goodwill there. You never know!

    Didi – It’s a mystery to me why they didn’t at least try – many others did. There was a lot of competition, no doubt, but Woolworth already had a good rep there, which makes it that much more surprising.

    Anonymous – I completely agree, a multi-store per market approach opening was one of the main keys to Kmart’s success (that and their distribution system). Kohl’s is a modern master of that strategy. It’s nothing for them to open four or more stores in the same city on a single day.

    Danny – I agree! And they definitely had their best foot forward on merchandising, at least for publicity purposes! My guess is that they really did look like this in the earliest years, though.

    And I like the 1964 exteriors better as well, even though the I-beam grid/zig-zag scores points for uniqueness. Set aside the substitution of a script logo, a toned down awning and alternating stone veneer panels, and the basic facade is still very close to the original.

    Steven – That’s a great question, and I’m clueless. I don’t remember reading anything about paint being a particular specialty. Another interesting aspect is that the paint sign breaks the white wall signs/gray hanging signs pattern. My only guess is that maybe they were trying to create a focal point on the wall between the two red diamond logo signs, but who knows?

    The Highway Beautification Act, as you say, really killed the architecture styles exemplified by the early Woolcos. I understand the motivation behind it, but what came afterward was rarely more “beautiful”, and almost always more boring. Good point about the cost, the simplified exterior design had to be cheaper, and the late sixties they even dumped the stone veneer.

    Anonymous – Undoubtedly the upkeep and paint costs were high - refer back to the “First Woolco Stores” post, where the 1962 Columbus store is shown in 1970 photos, and the painted steel structure was already badly faded.

    At least where gas stations were concerned, the H.B. Act definitely did play a part. Texaco and Union Oil, for example, made big promotional hay over their switch from the Teague “ice boxes” (Texaco) and space-age awnings (Union 76) to more sophisticated designs, often with some landscaping, a previously foreign concept. Jewel switched over to brick in 1962/3, several years before the Act when they went to larger “combination” stores. Porcelain wouldn’t have looked appropriate at that point.

    Claude – Thanks for that additional update, and I didn’t know about the Steinberg’s/Price Club/Costco connection. Interesting!

    Veg-o-matic – Thanks. I have no idea doesn’t look like that was well thought through, does it? Maybe they just wanted to keep things interesting!

    Blaise – Fascinating and sad about the seventies leftovers in the Fredricton store. The Woolco stores did end up a fairly major boon for Wal-Mart. I’m sure regular shoppers were pleased to see the change by the time it happened. The Red Grille was no doubt a pleasant holdover from an era very different from the Wal-Mart age.

    Ken – Again, the paint thing is a mystery.

    It’s amazing how different the fortunes of various retailers are between their U.S. and Canadian divisions. Success outside a company’s home market takes a total commitment, but in this case it sure seems that Woolworth was even more committed to making the Woolco program fly in Canada than in the US.

    Tomcat – Woolco’s expansion into Chicago finally came in the 70’s, a bit later than the timeframe of this post. Another store besides Villa Park was in Rolling Meadows, where they took over the aging and long vacant Topps store in 1977.

  16. Oh how I miss this store. My favorite location was at 4650 Johnston Street Lafayete, Louisiana 70503 @ Camilia Blvd. It was a Woolco until mid 1983 until it closed and then became a nasty Wally World. I used to get a lot of my clothes at Woolco. I remember the Braxton Jeans I wore with embroidry on the back pockets.

  17. I worked at the Gateway Mall Woolco in Memphis from 1972 to 1979. During that time, I was a Division Assistant Manager. I helped to manage the Divsion I (toys, stationary, candy) and later the Division III (fabric, curtains, infants). An Assistant's job included occasional work supervising the checkout operations. I have to say my years at Woolco were great fun mixed with long hours, lots of hard work, hardly any weekends ever off, and low pay. After 2 or 3 years of working in management at Woolco, I realized that I needed to get a college education so I could enjoy a better life in a non-retail field. That was perhaps the wisest decision I ever made. Nevertheless, I look back at my Woolco years we great fondness and memories.


  18. I worked at the Mesquite Tx. store when I was 14 years old until I was 16. I moved flooring products/carpet, loaded them on customers trucks. I also, assembled bicycles, set up displays in the sporting good departments etc. Back then if there was an employ that cleaned the store, the cleaning took place after the store closed, & whoever the person was locked in the store until the supervisor came & let you out in the morning. I was that person on many occasions. One of my friends & I would take different days to stay overnight. By the way the store manager did not know that I was only 14 when I went to work there. Those were fun times.

    1. Wow, you were young when you worked there! :) I can imagine those were fun times, as you say.

      You bring up a good point about cleaning up the store after hours. That's one thing that's difficult with today's 24/7 operations, and on those rare occasions when I shop real late or early it's an irritation (roped off aisles and the like), but I guess they don't have much choice.

  19. My Mom used to take all 5 of us kids clothes shopping for school at the Woolco' s in Key West Fl, in the early 70's... Ditto jeans :)

  20. California expansion did begin by the early 70's.In my neck of the woods, Sacramento had three Woolco locations:the Carmichael location at Madison/Manzanita(became a Price Club which has since relocated, it's now Sacro's oldest existing Home Depot, I live a short walk from there and grew up with that store even though I was still a young lad when the chain folded stateside),the Point West location on Arden Way opposite Arden Fair Mall(now an office building),and a South Sac location that relocated late in its existence(it was opposite Florin Mall in a now-Asian supermarket at Stockton/65th,it moved around 1980 to a new building opposite Southgate Plaza that's also a Home Depot now).While I doubt Woolco had Bay Area locations, I know they had at least a few SoCal locations(definitely at least one Cerritos/Norwalk location now occupied by a Home Depot).