The F.W. Woolworth Co. had the first five-and-dime stores, which sold discounted general merchandise at fixed prices, usually five or ten cents, undercutting the prices of other local merchants. Woolworth, as the stores popularly became known, was one of the first American retailers to put merchandise out for the shopping public to handle and select without the assistance of a sales clerk. Earlier retailers had kept all merchandise behind a counter and customers presented the clerk with a list of items they wished to buy.
After working in Augsbury and Moore dry goods store in Watertown, New York, Frank Winfield Woolworth obtained credit from his former boss, William Moore, along with some savings, to buy merchandise and open the "Woolworth's Great Five Cent Store" in Utica, New York, on February 22, 1879. The store failed and closed in May 1879, after Frank earned enough money to pay back William Moore. Frank soon made a second attempt, and opened his "Woolworth's Great Five Cent Store", using the same sign, on June 21, 1879, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lancaster proved a success, and Frank never forgot the city for the rest of his life. Frank wanted to open a second store in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and so he asked his brother Charles Sumner "Sum" Woolworth to join him by managing it. The Harrisburg store opened as, "5¢ Woolworth Bro's Store" on July 19, 1879. After a falling-out with the landlord, that store moved to York, Pennsylvania, opening in March 1880. That store did not last long either, closing three months later. Frank searched for a larger, low-rent building. He found an ideal location in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at 125 Penn Avenue, and opened their "5¢ & 10¢ Woolworth Bro's Store" on November 6, 1880, with Sum as manager. The Scranton store is where Sum fully developed the brothers' "5¢ & 10¢" merchandising model. Sum spent a lot of time working the sales floor, talking with customers and employees. He often personally served customers. Sales grew steadily. By 1881, at Frank's suggestion, Sum bought out his brother's share of the Scranton store in two installments, in January 1881 and 1882. This made Sum the first Woolworth Bro's franchisee.
In 1884, confident enough to open another store, Sum partnered with his longtime friend Fred Morgan Kirby to open a store in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, a neighboring town to the west of Scranton. Fred had been working as the head of wholesale operations at Augsbury and Moore of Watertown, New York. Each man put up $600 to launch the Wilkes-Barre store called "Woolworth and Kirby". Fred managed the new store and, while sales were initially poor, the store soon caught on. By 1887 he used his profits to buy out Sum and expand the store under his name; Sum and Fred remained the best of friends. During this time, Frank was expanding with more stores. Sum's approach was different; he worked to perfect the look and feel of his Scranton store. It had mahogany counters with glass dividers and glass-fronted showcases. The store was brightly lit, new, and the wooden floor was polished to a lustrous shine. The layout was soon adopted by Frank for his F. W. Woolworth stores and became the standard as the two brothers persuaded family members and former co-workers from Moore's to join them in forming a "friendly rival syndicate" of five-and-ten-cent stores. Each of the syndicate chain's stores looked similar inside and out, but operated under its founder's name. Frank Woolworth provided much of the merchandise, encouraging the rivals to club together to maximize their inventory and purchasing power.
At the same time, using his preference to have someone he could trust, Frank brought in their cousin, Seymour H. Knox I, to open a store in Reading, Pennsylvania, under the name "Woolworth and Knox". Seymour had been managing a general store in Michigan.
Rise and Expansion
By 1904, there were six chains of affiliated stores operating in the United States and Canada. Between 1905 and 1908, members of the Woolworth Syndicate followed Frank's lead to incorporate their businesses; Sum maintained that he did not need to incorporate his stores. In 1912 the syndicate agreed to a scheme crafted by Frank Woolworth: to join forces and incorporate as one corporate entity under the name "F. W. Woolworth Company" in a merger of all 596 stores. The stock flotation raised over $30 million for the five founders of the merged chains. They all swallowed their pride and accepted Frank's name above the door, with Frank as President of the new Corporation. Sum Woolworth, Fred Kirby, Seymour Knox, Earle Charlton, and William Moore each became a Director and Vice-President. One of the "friendly rival" predecessor chains included several stores initially opened as Woolworth & Knox stores starting as early as September 20, 1884 as well as S. H. Knox & Co. 5 & 10 Cent Stores opened after an 1889 buyout by his cousin, Seymour H. Knox I. Knox's chain grew to 98 U.S. and 13 Canadian stores by the time of the corporate consolidation. Fred M. Kirby added 96 stores, Earle Charlton added 35, Charles Sumner Woolworth added 15, and William Moore added two.
Sum Woolworth continued to maintain his home base in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was not the type to get embroiled in the politics, as executives of the different chains sought to establish themselves in the merger. As he did from the beginning, Sum concentrated on improving stores, particularly in his native Pennsylvania, and training up-and-coming managers. Those managers eventually dispersed across the entire company, setting the style and tone of Woolworth stores worldwide.
In the 1960s, the five-and-dime concept evolved into the larger discount department store format. In 1962, Woolworth's founded a chain of large, single-floor discount stores called Woolco. Some of these stores were branded as Winfields, after the founder's middle name.
1962 was the same year that Woolworth's competitors opened similar retail chains that sold merchandise at a discount: the S.S. Kresge Company opened Kmart, Dayton's opened Target, and Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart store.
The following year, in 1963, Woolworth expanded into the shoe store business with the purchase of Kinney Shoe Corporation, which eventually created the store that Woolworth would be taken over by, Foot Locker.
By Woolworth’s 100th anniversary in 1979, it had become the largest department store chain in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
During the 1980s, the company began expansion into many different specialty store formats, including Afterthoughts (which sold jewelry and other accessories for women), Northern Reflections (which sold cold-weather outerwear), Rx Place (later sold to Phar-Mor), and Champs Sports. By 1989, the company was pursuing an aggressive strategy of multiple specialty store formats targeted at enclosed shopping malls. The idea was that if a particular concept failed at a given mall, the company could quickly replace it with a different concept. The company aimed for 10 stores in each of the country's major shopping malls, but this never came to pass as Woolworth never developed that many successful specialty store formats. Also attempted was a revision of the classic Woolworth store model into Woolworth Express, a small, mall-oriented variant which was dubbed "a specialty variety store'', stocked with everyday convenience items such as health and beauty aids, greeting cards, snack foods, cleaning supplies and school supplies (somewhat like the non-pharmacy, mall-based locations of CVS/pharmacy and other drug store chains).
DeclineThe growth and expansion of the company contributed to its downfall. The Woolworth company moved away from its five-and-dime roots and placed less emphasis on its department store chain as it focused on its specialty stores. Still, the company was unable to compete with other chains that had eroded its market share. While it was a success in Canada, the Woolco chain closed in the United States in 1983. Europe's largest F. W. Woolworth store, in Manchester, England, one of two in the city center, experienced a fire in May 1979. Despite the store being rebuilt even larger and up to the latest fire codes; the negative stories in the press, coupled with the loss of lives, sealed its fate; it finally closed in 1986. During the rebuild and partly as a result of the bad press, the British operation was isolated from the parent company as Woolworths plc. This proved fortuitous as the brand subsequently lasted a full twelve years longer in the United Kingdom than it did in the United States. On October 15, 1993, Woolworth's embarked on a restructuring plan that included closing half of its 800-plus general merchandise stores in the United States and converting its Canadian stores to a closeout division named The Bargain! Shop. Woolco and Woolworth survived in Canada until 1994, when the majority of the Woolco stores there were sold to Wal-Mart. The Woolco stores that were not purchased by Wal-Mart were either converted to The Bargain! Shop, sold to Zellers or shut down. Approximately 100 Woolworth stores in Canada were rebranded as The Bargain! Shop, and the rest were closed.