Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cruisin' The Strip To Woolco

The photos above provide an in-depth look at one corner of a typical Woolco store from the mid-1960’s. Pictured is the “Auto Center” portion of the brand new Woolco at the Southroads Mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which opened in 1966. This, of course, was during the peak of the American car culture.

Auto Centers, then as now, typically consisted of an auto accessories section and a service department, where tires, batteries and tune-ups (required much more frequently by the cars of that era) were the main standbys. By the early 1960’s, auto centers were part of the normal discount store package, a standard feature in all Woolco stores and for most of their competition , including E.J. Korvette, Zayre and K-Mart. The ability to offer these departments was one of the many advantages that the Woolco discount store format had over the much smaller Woolworth’s variety stores. Auto centers weren’t the sole province of the discounters, however, but were staples of full-line department stores as well. Some of the larger (“Class A”-type) Sears stores had offered auto service as far back as the late 1930’s, and it was near-universal at Sears by the early 50’s. Montgomery Ward began to open auto centers in 1958 when they began to open large mall-based stores, and J.C. Penney opened its first one in Melbourne, Florida in 1963 as part of a major push to expand outside of their traditional soft goods arena.

Although I didn’t start driving until the very end of the 70’s and to my recollection never set foot in the auto center section of a Woolco, these photos bring back memories. For many of us who drove less-than-stellar cars in our youth, frequent trips to buy STP Oil Treatment or some other magic potion (or gas tank antifreeze in those Chicago winters) to keep the old beaters running were mandatory. In my case, it was usually K-Mart for auto supplies or the JCPenney Auto Center (which was later bought out by Firestone) for tires.

The photos are self-explanatory, but a few things are worth noting:

· This store has one of the last examples of the “I-beam grid” tower sign with the block-lettered Woolco logo. Some of Woolco’s second generation design elements were already in place on this store – the “zig-zag” awning had already been ditched in favor of something more modern-looking, and the silver painted script Woolco logo on glass had replaced the backlit plastic signs above the entrance doors.

· The chain’s standard 1960’s in-store signage can be clearly seen.

· The “TapeDek” display, featuring a brand new product at the time – the legendary 8-track tape, where an album’s songs were divided between four “channels”. If you’re over 35, chances are you have direct experience with those. I especially remember the “ker-chunk” sound our 8-track player would make when changing between the four channels on the tape. On several 8-track albums we had, the channel breaks were actually in the middle of a song, complete with a fade-out and fade-in at the break. Yikes!

· The huge accessory headrests, sold because headrests weren’t standard in every car at the time. Looks like they would have been somewhat uncomfortable.

· The cool-looking auxiliary gauge sets.

· “Station Wagon Pads.” Eh?

· The ceiling-hung lighting display near the motor oil.

· The circa 1961 Ford Falcon in the service bay. Guess Linus and Lucy’s folks must have shopped at Woolco.

· Lastly, the shop labor price sign, featuring several free services, wheel alignment for five bucks, and an oil change for under three bucks (98 cents labor plus five quarts of Havoline at 37 cents each). Wow!

One side note that you might find interesting –the location of this store, Tulsa, had a unique connection to the “American car culture” mentioned above. The city was home to the famous “Buried Plymouth”. Back in the mid-90’s or so, I bought a copy of the July 1, 1957 issue of Life magazine at an antique store. Inside was a fascinating article about the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma’s statehood that had just taken place. The “main event” was the burial of a brand-new black and gold 1957 Plymouth Belvedere in a specially constructed vault beneath a Tulsa city park. The vault was designed to keep moisture out, hopefully preserving the car well enough to drive after all of those years underground. Tulsa residents were asked to guess what the population of their city would be at the time of the state’s centennial celebration in June 2007. The person with the closest guess (or their heirs) would win the car at the time it was exhumed, 50 years hence. The guesses were sealed within a metal container and buried along with the car.

I forgot all about the story until a few years ago, when I came across the magazine after storing it for years. Curious, I looked it up on the web, and by that time several websites had sprung up, fanning the flames of excitement about the soon-to-be revealed Plymouth. By the time June of ’07 rolled around, my oldest son and I had strongly considered driving out to Tulsa for the official unveiling. We ended up having a schedule conflict, so we decided to watch it on a live webcast instead. We were heartbroken (along with most Tulsans, I’m sure) to learn that the doggone vault had leaked and had been full of water for years, and the car was ruined. Even a trip to the Woolco Auto Center wouldn’t have helped it.
Thanks to the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society for use of these fine photos.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The First Woolco Stores

Within a five-month span in 1962, the modern discount store industry was born. In March, S.S. Kresge Co. opened the first Kmart store in Garden City, Michigan. In May, the first Target store was opened in Roseville, Minnesota by the Dayton Company, an old-line Minneapolis department store firm. In June, F.W. Woolworth Co. opened the first of its Woolco discount department stores in Columbus, Ohio. And yes, there was one more – in July, an Arkansas-based Ben Franklin franchisee opened “something called a Wal-Mart”, as he would later put it. Few people outside his home state would hear about that guy for years, though.

In September 1961, Woolworth announced its selection of Columbus, Ohio as the location of the first Woolco store. Woolworth chairman Robert C. Kirkwood explained his rationale to the press: “Columbus, with its tremendous growth potential and long-range plans for continuing industrial development, is an ideal location to make our entry into the low-profit, mass merchandising field". (“Low-profit” was a standard industry term among discounters in those days.)

On June 6, 1962, the first Woolco store, a 106,000 square foot unit, opened at Columbus’ Great Southern Shopping Center. It made for a wild scene, as reported by The New York Times the next day - “4,000 to 5,000 persons crowded inside in the first hour, (and) long lines formed at the eighteen checkout counters.” The center’s 5,000 spot parking lot filled to capacity by noon. Of course (we’re talking 1962 here) there was the element of spectacle that was part and parcel of Grand Openings at the time- the mayor of Columbus presented Woolworth chairman Kirkwood with the key to the city, for one thing. There was also a special display of jewelry, including a necklace valued at $1,000,000, which sported the “80.3 carat Portuguese Diamond… that drew sighs of amazement from housewives pushing shopping carts past the display. Store officials conceded that they did not expect to find a buyer for the necklace”.

Though every other item was well below the million dollar price point, the Woolco format did allow the company to carry much higher-ticket items than their Woolworth’s variety store counterparts, whose lineup generally capped-out at the $100 mark, with only a handful items going for anywhere near that . The NYT article cited a $3,000 necklace (much more reasonable, don’t you think?), a $649.74 refrigerator and a $448 TV/stereo console as examples. The higher priced goods were the result of the much wider product offering the discount store format allowed, owing mainly to the greatly expanded floor space. The previous September, Mr. Kirkwood went so far as to tell the Wall Street Journal that “Less than 5% of Woolco merchandise will be the variety store types”. The Woolco stores would have “appliances, drugs, auto supplies (and service), men’s wear and other departments not in the variety stores”. There would also be expanded lineups of shoes, sporting goods, jewelry and other items. Many of these departments would be handled by outside lessees, as per standard discount store practice at the time. A much greater emphasis would be placed on credit sales, a huge revenue opportunity for the company (and ultimately a huge headache for many a consumer) that fit the “big-ticket discounter” much better than it did the good old “dime store”. And then there was the food – the “Red Grille” cafeterias would be standard features of every Woolco store – not at all surprising, considering Woolworth earned a impressive 10% of its total revenue from in-store restaurant sales.

The name “Woolco”, incidentally, wasn’t new at all. It had served as a Woolworth private brand name since at least the 1920’s, featured on everything from sewing supplies to 78 rpm records to tins of candy. Most often it appeared inside the form of an elongated diamond logo, later adapted and modified for use as an early logo for the discount stores, where it was displayed prominently on interior signage.

Interestingly, out of the seven Woolco stores opened during its founding year, 1962, four of them were located in Canada. In addition to a second Columbus Woolco (pictured above) and one in Richmond, Virginia, the four Canadian stores opened that year were located in Brantford, Sudbury, Hamilton and Windsor, Ontario. The company would continue to open a high percentage of its new Woolco store base in Canada over the next few years.

Woolworth’s initial assessment of the first seven Woolco stores was positive, if a bit low-key – after a year of operation, the stores “had reached or surpassed the goals of public acceptance set for them”. No million-dollar necklace sales needed.

The first two photos shown above are vintage Woolworth publicity shots, showing the distinctive I-beam sign structure and zig-zag awning the chain used during its first couple of years of existence - Corpus Christi, Texas, opened in March 1964 at Greater Parkdale Plaza , and Phoenix, Arizona (Hayden Plaza West), which opened the following month. Note the Woolworth’s store to the left of the new Woolco.

The rest of the photos depict the Woolco store at the Graceland Shopping Center, the second Woolco unit in Columbus, Ohio. This store opened in early October, 1962, some ten miles north of the first Columbus Woolco store. Photos 3 through 7 were taken in 1970, and the last photo was taken in 1966, when the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales were in town. (Does this kind of thing ever happen at shopping centers anymore? I think I know the answer.) A very special thanks goes to George Campbell, Columbus-area native and historian, for the use of these photos. George has an excellent website devoted to the area’s history. There is a special section devoted to the history of the Graceland Shopping Center, including shots of a Big Bear store and a Colonial Stores-era Albers Supermarket, along with a special Woolco section that brings us up to date on the building’s history. Also, check out his Flickr photostream for more great historic photos!

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 décor 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?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

...and now, a few words from Woolco

On this special occasion, we’ve asked the distinguished gentleman in the foreground to introduce a new series of posts about Woolco, that stalwart oak in the discount store forest. (Long since cut down, sad to say.) After his opening remarks, he will present the new Miss Woolco to the world. Look at her – she’s practically bowled over with the excitement of it all! Or maybe it's just nerves.

I’ve been to one Woolco store in my life, and it wasn’t in the Chicago area where I grew up. Rather, it was at the Lincoln (Rhode Island) Mall, which opened in 1975. The Woolco store there closed down with the rest of the chain in 1982, the mall still exists in radically altered form. This particular store became my grandparents’ discount Shangri-La after Mammoth Mart closed up shop, and we frequented it during our visits to see them. Never got to meet Miss Woolco, I’m afraid.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Lifestyles of Winn-Dixie

Remember the early 1980’s? Big hair? Shoulder pads? Skinny ties? Huge eyeglass frames? New Wave music? Cellphones the size of cinderblocks (for the few who were lucky enough to own ‘em yet)? The smell of “Love’s Baby Soft” wafting through the air?

Well, the 80’s brought about changes in many aspects of American life, and after a couple of years had begun to make their mark on the lowly supermarket as well. The styles of the seventies, so different from what had gone before, appeared tired, grungy and long out-of-date by 1982 or so. When the time came to open new stores or revamp existing ones, major supermarket chains were opting for a very different look. Gone were the muted earth-tones, dark stained woods, Helvetica-lettered signs, and “any color as long as it’s brown” exteriors. In their place were neon, mirrors, high-gloss tile, light-colored woods, faux-metallic surfaces and “any color as long as it’s beige” exteriors. In short, it was a much brighter, shinier look, if not necessarily more tasteful.

Superficial though they might have appeared, these changes were emblematic of a cultural shift in society. This was the Reagan Era, a sharp contrast to the back-to-nature ethic and economy-induced austerity of the previous decade. The popular TV shows of the early and mid-80’s - Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest, Hotel, Miami Vice and (in particular) Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous – provided a vehicle for the average American viewer to live the life of the wealthy, if only vicariously. Prosperity was “in”, whether one was experiencing it personally or not. Retail store designers, a group which seldom fails to notice trends, began to incorporate this into their new offerings. Whether they achieved “an optimistic look” or “an affluent look” is debatable, but one thing’s for sure – they poured on the glitz!

Winn-Dixie, whose conservative management style was mirrored by its conservative store designs, took a bold step into the new era with its first “Marketplace” store, a 45,000 square foot format grocery/drug combination store, which opened in Valdosta, Georgia in 1984. A number of 35,000 square foot (well above the Winn-Dixie average) “superstores” opened at same time. These new, larger stores were rife with innovations for Winn-Dixie, including vastly expanded deli and bakery departments, floral sections, new “World of Cheese” bars, Gourmet Cookery areas and “Fisherman’s Wharf” seafood departments. And of course, beef was still star of the show in the newly dubbed “Prestige Meats” section.

The décor of these new superstores was on a completely different plane from the standard-issue Winn-Dixie, where painted walls and simple cutout-lettered signage were most commonly seen. Compare the photos above with the 1977 interiors shown in the previous post. The contrast is striking.

Winn-Dixie’s sales and market position remained relatively strong through the 1980’s and early 90’s. The landscape was slowly but surely changing, however. Challenges would come from a number of corners, some uncomfortably close to home. In 1980, Sam Walton, founder and chairman of (then still strictly regional) Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., was invited to join the Winn-Dixie board of directors. For six years, Walton lent his considerable management wisdom to Winn-Dixie, while at the same time gaining a priceless education with respect to the grocery industry. In late 1986, Walton resigned from the Winn-Dixie board. Just over a year later, in March 1988, the first Wal-Mart Supercenter opened, with a full grocery department under roof. Unfortunately for Winn-Dixie, the launch of this new format coincided with a full court press by Wal-Mart into their home turf – the Deep South and Florida.

And the pressure was building from another direction as well. Lakeland, Florida-based Publix Super Markets, Inc., had long stood in the shadow of Winn-Dixie, at least where volume is concerned. Publix had a highly enviable reputation for service, elegant store design and a very loyal customer base. Through the two companies’ early history, however, Publix’s relative handful of stores compared to the giant Winn-Dixie allowed them to fly low on the official Beef People radar screen. Publix had a chainwide policy of Sunday closures until the early 1980’s, and had no stores at all outside of Florida until 1991. Over the years, the balance ever so gradually shifted as Publix’s growing store count inched closer. In early 1962, for example, Winn-Dixie had over 200 stores in Florida, nearly 400 outside of Florida, while Publix had 74 in Florida, zero outside. In 1972, Winn-Dixie had 197 stores in Florida, 562 outside to Publix’s 174 in Florida, still zero outside, and in 1982, Winn-Dixie had 405 in Florida, 817 outside. While Publix grabbed the Florida lead that year, all of their 438 stores remained safely within the Sunshine State borders. (Today, after the voluminous dust of the last few years has settled, Winn-Dixie has 358 stores in Florida, 162 outside. Publix has a whopping 719 in Florida, 283 outside. These are the current figures on the companies’ websites.)

By the mid-90’s, Winn-Dixie was in a dreadful situation in its key markets, competing against Wal-Mart on price and Publix on service and style. As the late New York Times writer Constance Hays put it, “In both cases, (Winn-Dixie) was struggling against nimbler, more experienced foes.” Through the 80’s and 90’s, though, the company made attempts to compete on both fronts. In 1987, Winn-Dixie resurrected the “Table Supply” name for a discount warehouse format, but it proved to be short-lived, with five of the six stores launched closing down after just two years. Years later, another warehouse discount format would be launched, SaveRite, on a much wider basis. On the other hand, through the 90’s Winn-Dixie continued to open larger, more deluxe stores, but it was a slow and expensive process. By 1990, only a third of the chain’s 1,200 stores were over 35,000 square feet, and there were still a fairly small number of the 45,000 square foot upscale Marketplace stores. Far too many of the chain’s stores were too old, too small and too dated.

The first years of the 21st century could only be described as a disaster for Winn-Dixie, with sales and profits spiraling downward. Between 1998 and 2003, the company closed more than 200 stores, and in 2003 alone, Winn-Dixie stock lost nearly half its value. That year, many of the Atlanta stores, including several of the elegant Marketplace units were converted to the SaveRite warehouse format. In February 2005, faced with the toughest challenges in the company’s proud 70-year history, Winn-Dixie filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The following June, the painful details of the company’s reorganization were announced. Over 300 of the company’s 913 stores would be closed, and Winn-Dixie would exit four states altogether – Tennessee, Virginia, North and South Carolina. The latter two states in particular had contained key company markets for decades. In addition, Winn-Dixie would say goodbye to Atlanta after some 45 years.

A year later, under the guidance of new CEO Peter Lynch, a former Albertsons executive, Winn-Dixie emerged from bankruptcy. Maintaining a smaller store base of some 520 units, the company progress has been well noted by Wall Street, which by and large seems to like Winn-Dixie again. One initiative the company has undertaken is to streamline its stable of private label brands to just a few, with two primary ones – a simple “Winn-Dixie” for most items, and in a nod to company history, “Winn and Lovett” as a premium brand. Peter Lynch’s stated goal is admirably straightforward – “To make Winn-Dixie a better company.” The company’s new tagline underscores this goal – “Getting better all the time”, which for me instantly conjures up the 1967 Beatles song.

Of course, an 80’s song would fit the bill pretty well also!

Pictured above are four Winn-Dixie Marketplace interior views. Meat and seafood departments from the first store, in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1984, followed by a produce department view from 1985 and a typical “Cheese Shop” from the following year. Below are two Marketplace exteriors, from 1986 and 1993 respectively. The last view shows a friendly-looking crew from a 1986 standard (non-Marketplace) store. I find myself wishing they had added a few more departments just to see what additional uniform colors they could come up with.