Friday, July 31, 2009

Woolco's "Fairly Fresh" New Look!

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, 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.

Monday, July 20, 2009

One Small Step For Woolco

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.

Monday, July 13, 2009

We're Woolco. Deal With It.

A more resolute group you’ll never find than this Woolco store crew from 1966. Focused on maximizing your discount shopping experience, they don’t suffer fools gladly. The “captain of the ship”, the store manager, stands at the fore, clipboard in hand. His look-alike deputy (hair excepted), who I like to call “the enforcer”, stands to his left, ready to address any Woolco playbook infractions. And that guy seated in the second chair on the right, leaning forward and wearing glasses, needs to wipe the smile off of his face - this is serious. Of course, the very staging of the picture lends itself to all manner of cracks about “the women behind the men of Woolco” (this is 1966 we’re talking about), which I’ve wisely decided to steer clear of here.

The moral of the story? Have fun, shop at Woolco, enjoy the great deals – but watch your step.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Happy 5th of July!

I hope that everyone has had a great Independence Day weekend so far! There’s still a bit of it left – definitely time for another grocery store run. One of the great things about summer is being able to wear shorts nearly everywhere you go, just like these ladies hangin’ out at an L.A. area Market Basket store in the above photo, which was taken for a 1956 Saturday Evening Post article.

Wait – they’re in Southern California, where people dress like this all year long!

Today is this website’s second anniversary. Thanks to my friends, old and new, for your loyal readership and your very kind and informative comments and emails!

Two years in, I’m thinking of ways to improve the site. From those who keep up with Pleasant Family Shopping on a regular basis, I would love to know the answer to two questions: 1.) Why? and 2.) What would make it more worthwhile? If you think about it and have time to send me a quick email (my address is in the “profile” section at the upper right of the page), that would be great. Thanks so much!


I want to thank all of those who commented or who sent me an email response to this post. I think I've responded to everyone personally by now (please let me know if I haven't!). I deeply appreciate the great suggestions, the very kind and generous feedback and the affirmation of what I've attempted to do here. The strong sense I get is that most readers are happy with the direction and content of the site, and would like it to continue as it has. For sure, there are some improvements I would like to make in the site's appearance and some additional content I want to add that hopefully I will be able to get to over time. Your readership and responses are what makes this all worth it. I hope to continue, Lord willing, until there aren't any old store chains left!

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.