The declining world economy,changing markets and evolving retailing are proving fatal to yet another relic of old fashioned retailing, Woolworth stores. Woolworth was once one of the original five-and-dime retailers in the world will be closing all 80 stores in the UK on January 5, 2009. 27,000 workers will be losing their jobs.
The F.W. Woolworth stores actually date back to 1878, when founder Frank Winfred Woolworth started the stores with a mere $300 loan. This only proved that five-and-dime retailers were actually financed with five-and-dime investment capital as well. And over the years, the importance of this discounter only grew, where lunch counters were added in some stores. But in 1960 the company got a bad reputation when four African American college students in a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth store were refused service, signaling another pivotal event that helped to launch the 1960's push for civil rights and hurting the Woolworth image even more as a racist business, besides being an incredibly cheap business. But in other parts of the nation that year, Woolworth continued to expand into a major 1960's retailer among those who loved bargains.
In Portland, Oregon a Woolworth store was a key tenant in the newly built Lloyd Center shopping mall that opened on August 1,1960. Lloyd Center became one of the first shopping malls in America, but was actually originally conceived as a new marketing idea as far back as 1923. Amazingly, it actually took all of 37 years before the modern Lloyd Center shopping mall opened it's doors to the public. And long before Tonya Harding became a co-conspirator in knee banging her rival skater, she learned to skate as a little girl at the Lloyd Center ice rink which was a popular attraction of the mall.
But despite being a new tenant in the modern shopping mall, like the new Lloyd Center complex, the Woolworth stores began to see a steady decline and only lasted at Lloyd Center until 1997. It was replaced with a Marshall's store. And even the Lloyd Center shopping mall had to modernize and catch up with the enclosed shopping malls that were popping up in America, and in 1991 enclosed the mall, adding a food court and other modernizing renovations, in an attempt to remain relevant as a retailer and to slow the decline of customers to other competing malls.
Part of what undermined the old fashioned five-and-dime retailers like Woolworth and the competing J.J. Newberry company, was the rise of much larger discount retailers such as Kmart and Walmart that were not only much bigger, but offered even better prices and constantly rotated stock. However, the old fashioned five and dime stores had a unique personality and were a place where stock would sometimes sit on the shelves unsold for years and grow old and very shopworn. Stock rotation was a foreign concept to some retailers like Woolworth or Newberry stores.
Sometimes in the toy departments you could still find an old AMT 3 in 1 model car kit years old still sitting on the shelf unsold. And especially after some no account shoplifters opened the packages and stole some parts, these items would sit there until someone would buy the item in as-is condition for was left and not stolen once the item was almost a Smithsonian vintage artifact. But the ability to find items nearly as old as carbon itself at Woolworth's was kind of cool.
Some of the toy sections even featured some very poorly made cast metal cars made out of lead that were called "penny cars" that actually sold for just one cent in the early 1960's as well. Certainly these toys were dangerous. But they were cool in their own way because they were so cheap and still fun for a kid with not much money to play with. Outside of buying a more pricey dollar bag of MPC corporation molded plastic crudely made toy soldiers, these penny cars would a great toy for the price as long as a kid didn't put them in his mouth and get lead poisoning.
But aging stock on the shelves, and clerks that were not all the best and didn't really care all that much about their jobs, and many other third rate things about both Woolworth and Newberry stores made them into seedy and aged retailers that were actually sort of fun to go to compared to so many better quality retailers. But heck, to save a little money, these stores were sort of chic in many ways. But the seedy and aging nature of these poorly managed businesses only helped them to go into an eventual financial decline and the closing of their American stores. Now the closing of all of the 80 UK Woolworth stores is another sign of the decline of this once interesting cut rate retailer.
Interestingly, what now remains of the old business assets of the Woolworth company actually grew into the modern Footlocker stores, specializing in shoes and related goods. But it is a far cry from these old fashioned stores that attempted to appeal to nearly everyone while really being a master of none. But the closing of the UK Woolworth stores is yet another sad chapter in the rise and fall of this old fashioned retailer. The Woolworth stores will be sorely missed by me despite all their faults. But when even a child like me could see obvious problems in the five-and-dime business model, you knew that these businesses were troubled, but still had their appeal.
When my parents flew to London a few years ago, a Woolworth store in London really made my mother's day. My mother missed Woolworth as well, and seemed to really enjoy that she could fly all the way to London and still find these stores open for business.
Note: Wizbang Blue is now closed and our authors have moved on. Paul Hooson can now be found at Wizbang Pop!. Please come see him there!