Woolworths: The curiously British US-based company

Today, the shutter came down for the final time at Woolworths Kirkcaldy, Store 1201. It was among the final group of branches to close. It is the end of an era. This institution had been a fixture in Britain’s High Streets for almost 100 years.

The history of the original company set up by Frank W. Woolworth goes back even further though. Even though some of the online campaigns to save Woolies laboured under the impression that it was a British store, Mr Woolworth was in fact from the USA and he opened several stores in the USA and Canada before opening a single British branch. And right up until the 1980s, Woolies in the UK sent most of its (substantial) profits back to the USA as well!

According to the Woolworths Virtual Museum website (which was taken down when the company went into administration, but can still be viewed on the internet archive), the origins of the store can be traced right back to 1873. Frank Woolworth worked for William Moore at the Augsbury and Moore Dry Goods Store in Watertown, New York. Mr. Moore came up with the innovation to sell surplus goods at a fixed price of 5 cents.

Mr. Woolworth took this idea further, deciding to set up an entire shop full of goods that cost 5 cents. Having persuaded Mr. Moore to back the store, the first Woolworths shop opened in Utica, New York in 1978. But after an initial success, the store was eventually a flop. Undeterred, Mr. Woolworth opened a second store in Pennsylvania, 60 miles away. It was a runaway success.

From then on, there was no stopping Woolworth. By 1910, F. W. Woolworth paid for the construction of the Woolworth Building — which was the world’s tallest building until 1930 — with $15 million in cash. As well as expanding into the UK, Woolworths also opened branches in Canada, Germany, Ireland and Cuba! (Retailers named Woolworths in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico have nothing to do with F. W. Woolworth’s company.)

It was only in 1909, over 30 years after the opening of the first Woolworth store in the USA, that the brand arrived in Britain. Anglophile Frank W. Woolworth had written several years earlier during a visit to the UK, “I believe that a good penny and sixpence store, run by a live Yankee, would be a sensation here.” The first British F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd 3d and 6d store was opened on 5 November 1909 on Church Street in Liverpool. It was a roaring success.

Before long, Woolworths had become bigger in the UK than it was in the USA. It was quickly given the nickname Woolies, a sign of the genuine affection the British public had for the store. By the 1920s, a new Woolworths store was being opened every 17 days. Local officials across the country were desperate for a Woolies to open in their town, and if it did so it was seen as a seal of approval for the area. The British image of the chain was further underlined when the company raised enough money to buy two Spitfires during World War II.

Woolworths dropped the fixed price concept during World War II. The 6d upper limit had been stretched to breaking point during the 1930s as Woolies started selling socks and shoes individually for sixpence. And if you wanted a saucepan, you had to buy the lid separately too! As rationing came in, the 6d upper limit had to go.

After the war, Woolies grew even more quickly than before. Alongside the programme re-opening stores affected by the events of World War II, 330 new stores were opened within a six year period in the 1950s. At one point, stores were opening at the rate of two per week. The 1,000th Woolworths store in Britain was opened in Portslade in 1956.

Decline set in during the 1970s. Analysts began to criticise the “moribund” store. Throughout that decade, around 150 stores were closed, bringing the number of stores back down from a peak of 1,100.

Woolworths had lots of freehold properties and sold some in order to buy DIY chains B&Q and Dodge City. Analysts were sceptical, but Woolworths Chairman Geoffrey Rogers was right in his hunch that DIY would be a growth area in the coming decade. Mr. Rogers had envisaged 100 B&Q stores opening within ten years. The target was easily surpassed.

Woolworths had much to celebrate after its first seventy years. But that was all plain sailing compared to what would face the company from the 1980s onwards. My next post will look at the history of Woolworths from the Kingfisher purchase onwards.


  1. Did you know that the American Woolworths chain decided it was going no-where back in the 1970s.

    It decided to go into a completely new line of business.

    All the US Woolworths stores were closed down – and re-opened as shops selling sportswear, which the owners believed was going to be a major growth area.

    Those stores are still in business – and have expanded to the UK.

    The company name? Footlocker.

  2. […] 40 of the jobs that have gone from the Western Isles were at Woolworths. Craig mourns the passing of the store. Not as much as I do though — I lost my job because of it! I am currently writing a series of posts about Woolworths, the first of which is here. […]