February 22 – Woolworth's Day

Posted on February 22, 2016

On this date in 1878, Frank Woolworth opened a store in Utica, New York. He called it “Woolworth's Great Five Cent Store.” The store quickly went out of business. He looked about for a better location and ended up using the exact same sign to open a store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

And that store succeeded.

It succeeded so well that, when Frank Woolworth died in 1919, his company owned more than 1,000 stores. And through most of the 1900s, Woolworth's grew and grew to be one of the largest retail chains in the world!

This is what American Woolworth's
looks like these days...
Today there are still Woolworth's in Austria, Germany, and Mexico, but there are no stores with that name still in the U.S. However, one of the divisions of Woolworth's, Foot Locker, does still exist. There are also other stores that were part of the Woolworth's Group (now renamed the Venator Group).

Why was this store so successful?

First of all, many people like to go to a variety store where they can buy everything on their shopping list rather than going to a whole bunch of different stores. And Woolworth's was the quintessential variety store.

Second, people like a bargain! And Woolworth's was a five-and-dime store, where you could buys thing you wanted or needed for just five to ten cents. Another name for such a store is a “dime store,” and these days such stores are called a dollar store (or, elsewhere in the world, a pound shop or euro store or whatever).

Here are some other ways in which Frank Woolworth pioneered modern store practices:

  • He had set prices for items. There was no haggling. That made things much easier for shop owners to hire and trust sales clerks.
  • He bought merchandise to be sold in his store directly from the companies manufacturing those items. By cutting out any sort of “middleman,” Woolworth could charge less for the same items.
  • He used self-service display cases, so customers could examine the product, read the package, and choose an item without needing a sales clerk's help. That probably meant more shoplifting, but it also meant you needed fewer, less knowledgeable sales clerks.

    (By the way, Woolworth sometimes made unannounced visits to his stores and shoplifted items. This, of course, was a test to see if the store clerks and managers were being attentive. He sometimes rewarded the managers that caught him!)

In some places, haggling is still common.
Here, in a market in San Francisco, two
women are haggling over the price of a chicken.
These days, all of Woolworth's innovations are so common it might seem surprising that someone had to come up with these ideas in the first place. But I have to admit, I kind of hate haggling over prices; I love just having a firm, fair price rather than having to worry if I paid too much for a silver belt, in Mexico, or if I sold that yard-sale item at too low a price. The main problem with haggling is that it takes a while. Can you imagine how long grocery store lines would be if people haggled with cashiers over the price of each item in their cart???

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