The early 1970’s found Woolco in serious need of an image makeover. The stores’ appearance had remained more or less static for years (the basic exterior design was now ten years old, and the main elements of the interior package had been in place since day one), despite the sea change in the American sense of style that was taking place.
In 1973, Woolco embarked on a plan to change it all, at least as far as their new stores were concerned. The “discount store look”, so evident in their stores despite the chain’s firmly stated disdain for that term, would be replaced with more upscale décor in an effort to emulate a true department store feel. The standard Woolco prototype was redesigned inside and out, and an attractive new stylized logo took the place of the familiar Woolco script.
The new Woolco stores were of a larger average size than before, up to 150,000 square feet, while the smaller “mid-size market” Woolco format was discontinued altogether. All new company stores that were 100,000 square feet or less would bear the Woolworth’s nameplate, a group which included many of the new mall-based stores, though mall-attached Woolcos would continue to open as well. The new, larger Woolworth’s units were classified as “A” stores, a company designation that was first used in the mid-60’s, one that had long been in use by Sears and Montgomery Ward, among others.
From the standpoint of customers who regularly shopped at the older Woolcos, the changes must have appeared sweeping. A more distinctive exterior design was introduced, with a larger elevated portion to the façade, consisting of beige block ornamented with brown waterfall sections and of course, the new logo. The interior lighting was a major departure from the past as well. The traditional discount store fluorescent strip lighting arrangement – with its “relative harshness...where a single candy wrapper on the floor sticks out like a sore thumb”, as a Chain Store Age article put it, was junked in favor of recessed mercury vapor fixtures, providing a softer and more elegant light, as one would typically see in a department store setting.
The new Woolco stores would make much greater use of carpeting, particularly in the apparel sections. Woolco was now able to carry a much larger amount of (high-profit) apparel, due to increased space and the introduction of “spiral fixtures and multilevel racks which display a large amount of hangware”, the article stated. You know, with the popularity the words “software” and “hardware” as they relate to computers have gained over the last 30 years, I’m surprised that the word “hangware” (I'd never heard of it before reading the abovementioned article) never took off in clothing sales. “Visit Kohl’s for Hot Summer Deals on hangware for the whole family!” Maybe I need to think that one through.
An additional cue from the world of department store design can be seen in the rearrangement of the stores into “boutique” sections, where individual departments were cubed off from the rest of the store via half-height walls, special signage and other design elements. The goal here was to draw customers in and encourage them to stay awhile. The record departments, those beloved cash cows of discounters everywhere, particularly benefited from the new setting. Another aim of the “boutique” arrangement was to bolster Woolco’s furniture/home furnishings business by allowing room groupings of furniture (with coordinated lamps, oriental rugs, etc.) to be displayed.
Woolco’s intention, as a Woolworth executive put it for Chain Store Age in 1974, was to “reduc(e) customer confusion”, as the stores “were too bland and sterile before”. The executive noted that “the décor sought is not elaborate, but fairly fresh-looking”. Now when it comes to retail history, I find a lot of the stuff amusing (guess I’d have to, right?), but that last statement made me laugh when I read it. “Fairly fresh” – Way to swing for the fences, Woolco! It sold the (really very nice) new concept woefully short, in my opinion.
Among the most important upgrades were the changes to Woolco’s Red Grille restaurants, consistently one of the highest grossing and most profitable areas of the store. The objective here was to move away from the cafeteria image (although the serving line would be retained) to more of a restaurant/coffee shop, along the lines of an Alphy’s (owned by L.A.- based Alpha Beta Acme Markets) or a Wag’s (Walgreen’s restaurant operation, with locations in the Chicago, Tampa and Miami areas). The garish red and white-striped awnings were done away with, replaced with a classier looking soffit and a row of white-globed lights along the service line. Comfortable booths were added, adding to an overall more elegant, subdued atmosphere. Red carpeting was laid down, and the entire area was semi-enclosed, giving patrons a “feeling of separation from the store rather than one of a crowd of shoppers hanging over their shoulders while they eat”. Probably the biggest change of all for the Red Grilles was their relocation from their previous location in the back of the store to the front, complete with their own outside entrances. The company’s two new stores in Wichita provided Woolworth top management an excellent basis for comparison – one Woolco had the Red Grille up front, the other in the standard rear location. Although this was unintentional (the plumbing had already been set for a front location in one of the stores and couldn’t be economically moved), the difference in restaurant revenue between the two stores was significant enough to prompt a front-location mandate for Red Grilles in all future Woolcos. Lastly, the Red Grilles of many older Woolco stores, including the company’s first Columbus, Ohio unit, were remodeled to the new image (though for cost reasons most remained in their original location in the store), something that was less frequently the case with other departments.
The company’s new “flagship store” opened in Langhorne (Bucks County), Pennsylvania, in Lincoln Plaza, adjacent to the Oxford Valley Mall in June 1974. This new 155,000 square foot Woolco, the largest in the fleet, was a true showplace - incorporating everything in the company’s new bag of tricks. Ironically, this moment of triumph coincided with Woolco’s startling decision to introduce a new policy dispensing with grand opening festivities of any sort. This did not escape the notice of the local paper, the Courier Times, which headlined the following day’s article “No ceremony, but it’s the biggest”, and led with the following sentence – “There was no ceremony to mark the occasion. No beauty queens (!), bands or politicians. Not even a ribbon cutting”. The (no doubt embarrassed) store manager offered an explanation: “We want to get open to the public rather than delay anything.” It’s a shame the word “meh” wasn’t yet part of the American lexicon – “Welcome to your new store, Ma’am. Meh. Fairly fresh, isn’t it?” In fairness, the article did record the presence of red, white and blue banners and a “Woolco Grand Opening” sign, things that always seem to warm the hearts of readers of this site.
At the end of 1974, there were 242 Woolco stores in 36 states and 86 in Canada, including 14 new catalog(ue) stores , a concept that (for Woolco) was unique to Canada. In Great Britain, whose first Woolco opened in 1967, there were now a total of 9 units. In 1977, Woolco finally surpassed the Woolworth’s stores in gross sales. By the end of 1979, there were 312 Woolco stores in the United States, 114 in Canada and 13 in Great Britain.
By this time Woolco had entered the long overlooked Chicago area, opening their first two area locations in late 1973, in Villa Park and Homewood. Eventually more Chicago area locations would follow, including Niles, Schaumburg, Oak Lawn, Matteson, DeKalb, Wheaton , and Rolling Meadows. This last location was originally opened as a Topps Super City discount store in 1961, and had sat vacant for over 2 ½ years after Topps, a store I fondly remember shopping at, closed down their entire operation. In 1978, expanded and refaced, it reopened as a Woolco, only to close four years later at the chain’s demise. After another long vacancy, it opened yet once more, this time as a Dominick’s Finer Foods store (and as of two years ago at least, the last time I saw it, was vacant again!)
In the mid-70’s, however, Woolco was still entering other new markets as well, opening additional stores in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Rhode Island in 1975/6, for example. The Rhode Island location, at the brand new Lincoln Mall, is the lone Woolco store I can recall shopping at, having visited there a least once or twice each year during my family visits there, an August ritual for years. We never ate at the Red Grille – the siren song of the Newport Creamery was just too much to resist. This store became a Caldor after Woolco’s demise. One area stands out in my memory above all others, and that is of the record department, completely decked out in posters at one point for Peter Frampton’s “I’m in You” album (1977), his follow-up to the monster-selling double lp “Frampton Comes Alive”, and at another time for (the less remembered) Rex Smith’s “Sooner or Later” album (1979). (Great. Now I’ll be singing “You Take My Breath Away” all night. At least my voice is deep enough now.)
Woolco made a major advance into the metropolitan New York market in 1976, when it took over five former W.T. Grant stores in Suffolk County (Long Island), New York. The individual locations were Bridgehampton, East Patchogue, Lake Ronkonkoma, Riverhead and Rocky Point.
By late 1980, however, despite the continuing profitability of F.W. Woolworth, the parent company, it had become clear that Woolco was slipping. While the combined Woolworth/Woolco stores division was still contributing over half the total company’s sales in 1981, it accounted for only 21 percent of the total profits that year. Taken alone, the Woolco stores would have posted a substantial loss. The first rumblings of store closings began to circulate. That year, Woolco, with $2.1 billion in sales was now in third place beyond its fellow Retail Class of 1962 members Kmart (an astonishing $16.6 billion) and Wal-Mart (an up-and-coming $2.5 billion). Another ’62 class member, Target, was on Woolco’s heels with $2 billion. Still safely behind were Zayre($1.4b), The May Co.’s Venture ($612 million) and Federated’s Gold Circle ($397m) and Richway ($226m), operated as separate divisions at the time.
Of course, the 1974 revamp was stale by this time, and Woolco didn’t have another act waiting in the wings. In their last issue of 1981, Business Week published an article entitled “Is Woolworth too late in upgrading Woolco?” The answer would soon be all too evident.
In a last great effort to turn things around, Woolworth hired themselves an executive with a superb track record, Bruce G. Allbright, president of Dayton-Hudson’s Target division, putting him in charge of the Woolworth/Woolco operation. Allbright, who had played a key role in Target’s rapid ascendancy to the heights of the discounting world, began work on January 1, 1982 with a mandate to fix Woolco as priority one. Ambitious plans were announced, including an “upscale renovation” of the Woolco stores. There would be fundamental changes as well – the reestablishment of separate divisional management and advertising groups for Woolworth and Woolco, in effect correcting a ten-year old mistake.
Sadly, none of this was to be. Although Allbright’s bid to turn Woolco around would be unsuccessful, he did perform an extremely valuable service for Woolworth. His astute analysis of Woolco’s plight and the actions necessary to correct it convinced Woolworth’s board that the process would take far too long, cost far too much, and still possibly fall short. On September 24, 1982, Woolworth announced the closing of all 336 U.S. Woolco stores. The end was at hand. Or was it?
Within a few days after the announcement, the business pages were buzzing with word of interest in the Woolco operation from an unusual source. 29-year-old Sheikh Mohammad al-Fassi of Saudi Arabia announced his intention to buy the failing chain for the expressed purpose of saving the jobs that would otherwise be lost. Preparations for negotiation with the Sheikh, a Miami resident at the time, were put in place. Within a few days, Woolworth lawyers had convinced the Sheikh that it was “in Woolco’s best interest to close the stores”. The end was here. In December 1982 Bruce Allbright returned to Dayton-Hudson, with a year of Woolco war stories under his belt, as vice chairman of Target. Two years later, he would be named Target's chairman and CEO. Allbright would retire in 1989 as president of Dayton-Hudson. The Woolco store buildings were sold off to a “Who’s Who” list of retailers, and many still operate today behind a myriad of nameplates.
The Woolco era would live on for many more years in Canada, coming to an end in January 1994, when Woolworth sold 120 of the 142 stores there to Wal-Mart, providing that company its entrée to the Canadian market. Eventually, the balance of the stores would be sold off to other retailers, including Zellers.
In the years immediately following the Woolco closure, F.W. Woolworth would continue to operate its famous namesake variety stores. By 1993, the Woolworth’s stores were in steep decline, and half of the 800 remaining variety stores were shut down. On July 17, 1997, an American retail epoch came to an end when the remaining U.S. Woolworth’s stores were closed. The British Woolworth stores, one of a rarefied class of American brands (Heinz Foods is another example) that Britons have truly claimed as their own, closed down earlier this year. Since the late 70’s, Woolworth has emphasized its Foot Locker shoe division, which was well positioned to capitalize on the exploding (and to this day, continuing) popularity of sports (and music) celebrity-endorsed athletic shoes. Another brand, Champs Sports, was added in 1989, forming the Woolworth Athletic Group. In 1999, the F.W. Woolworth Co. was renamed Venator Group, and two years later adopted its current name, Foot Locker, Inc., an appropriate moniker for its current business.
The first photo, from 1974, shows an up-close view of the “new” Woolco sign, gleaming in the night. The second shows a daytime shot of the new façade with a family of happy shoppers leaving with their treasures. (Looks like one of them is carrying a “target” – what might the significance of that be?) The third photo depicts a very attractive in-mall Woolco entrance. Next is the lingerie department, followed by the sporting goods section, where another “target” (OK, now I’m convinced it’s Freudian.) can be seen in the background. Lastly, a young man (John Schneider from “The Dukes of Hazzard”? Nah.) shops for TV sets in the store’s electronics department. Below are a series of black-and-white shots from 1974, depicting the Langhorne, Pennsylvania store mentioned above. First is the “new look” Red Grille, complete with front-facing windows. Next are the men’s and boys’ departments, followed by the record department, sporting what I think may be black-light posters displayed above. The last photo shows a living room grouping that would do James Lileks proud. The couch in the foreground defies description. I’ll try anyway, though...how about “Scalloped Florentine”? I sure hope it came with optional clear vinyl slipcovers.
Photos two through five are vintage Woolworth publicity photos. The first color photo and all of the black and white shots are used by permission of Chain Store Age, to whom I extend my sincere thanks!
Steven Swain has pointed out that Woolco did in fact carry out some of the "upscale renovations" referred to above during the last year of their existence. A while back he featured the Woolco location at the Blacksburg, Virginia University Mall on his website, LiveMalls, complete with a couple of great black and white photos.