February 12, 2007

Woolworth's

And the man behind the brand is...
Frank Woolworth

As a young boy growing up in Jefferson County, New York Frank Winfield Woolworth knew he was going to be a merchant. He thought store, he dreamed store, he played store. Often in the evening he and his brother would arrange make-believe merchandise on the dining room table and take turns selling to each other.

Yet the man who was to build the largest chain of stores in the world was turned down time and again in his quest to land his first retailing position.
In 1871, at the age of 19, Woolworth drove around Watertown, New York in an old sled looking for a sales job. Finally he was offered an opportunity at the Dry Goods firm of Augsbury-Moore. Of course he wasn't going to be paid but he wouldn't be charged anything for being around and learning, either.

After 2 1/2 years Woolworth worked hard enough to command a salary of $6 a week. He left for an offer of $10 a week but was soon cut to $8 for not moving enough goods. His health broke soon afterwards and Woolworth returned to the family farm to recuperate.

In 1877 his former employer Moore called him to run his store for $10 a week. In the spring of 1878 Woolworth arranged a number of slow-moving items on an old sewing table and priced them for 5¢ each. All the goods, heretofore unattractive to customers, sold the first day. It was the beginning of Woolworth's career selling an assortment of goods at one low price.

He convinced Moore to stake him with $300 to open a 5-cent store in Utica, New York in February 1879. At first the goods sold briskly but sales dropped to $2.50 a day and the store closed. Moore and Woolworth did not give up on the idea and launched another store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 21 the same year.

The Lancaster store was a modest 14' x 35'. The opening inventory was worth $410, comprised totally of nickel items. First day sales totalled $127.65, nearly 30% of his inventory. He later added 10¢ items and the Lancaster store became the first of over 2300 Woolworth 5 & 10s across the world.

In the 1880s few manufacturers would consider dealing with retailers. Woolworth realized the only way to give his customers the best deals was to buy directly from the suppliers. Only through persistence and imagination was he able to break through these traditional retailing barriers. By buying in large quantities he was able to offer high quality merchandise for 5¢ and 10¢.

Woolworth expanded the idea rapidly. He brought his brother, his old store-playing partner, into the 5 & 10 business. His brother, Moore and other close friends and associates all started chains of 5 & 10 stores, six chains in all.
In 1912 the F.W. Woolworth Company organized to take over all the 5 & 10 stores, 596 in all. The men had never been competitors and often bought and consulted together. The consolidation was a logical progression.

In 1913 Woolworth built the world's tallest building - the 792-foot Woolworth Tower. Other buildings were to grow taller but none so captured the imagination of the public, erected as it was in an age when the public was entranced with the romance of American business. Woolworth paid for the entire cost of $13,500,000 out of his own pocket - a gargantuan monument constructed literally from nickels and dimes.

Woolworth remained active in the business until his death in 1919, accumulating a fortune of $65,000,000, never having sold an item for more than a dime.

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