Keeping prices below sixpence
In the 1930s Woolworth raised its prices in the USA and Canada. The 10¢ maximum was doubled to 20¢ in 1932 under the Presidency of Byron Miller, acting on advice from his Buying Superintendent, Charles Wurtz Dayo. Two years later the Board reluctantly gave in to the inevitable and dropped the limit altogether. Only one Director, the veteran Chairman, Charles Sumner Woolworth, abstained. The subsidiaries in Britain and Germany were allowed to choose whether to follow suit.
The British board had no doubt. The limit was considered a virtue rather than a constraint. Maintaining it would hard, but worthwhile.
The Germans also retained their higher limit, but dropped the reference to '25 und 50 Pfgs.' on new store fascias after 1932.
As predicted, keeping prices below sixpence was a tough challenge, despite immense buying power. The late 1930s saw significant price inflation as Britain came out of the Great Depression. The Buyers had to go to great lengths to maintain a credible offer without exceeding the limit. Several trading partners admired the firm for passing up their offers of more expensive products with recognised potential, and for working closely with their suppliers to develop win-win tactics to keep manufacturing costs down.
Where possible when raw materials prices rose, items made with them were reduced in size, or the supplier absorbed the cost. As a result for a spell the chain dropped its ten inch (25cm) saucepans and added more six inch (15cm) models in their place. They also offered ¼ pint (142ml) tins of touch-up paint for fourpence (2p) rather than a half pint (244ml) for sixpence, for example. But the Board insisted that quality must not be sacrificed. They instructed the Buyers to find new lines to take the place of any which could no longer be stocked within the limit. They also made clear that would accept 'cunning' ways of keeping the headline price down.
Executives later signed off a number of so-called 'cunning ruses'. For example packs of playing cards, named 'New Bond' after the firm's address in Mayfair, were sold for ninepence (3¾p), after a decision to show excise duty payable to H.M. Government separately. The inner sleeve on every pack was store-stamped to show that the anti-gambling levy had been paid.
Government tax was also shown separately on a popular range of late Thirties gas lighters. Customers readily accepted that the lighter itself was sixpence and that further sixpence was collected on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is said that many customers wrote to 11 Downing Street bemoaning the punitive 'tax on cooking and heating', while nothing but plaudits were received at 1-5 New Bond Street.
Other items were put into smaller packs or split up and sold singly. The chain's popular own-brand and 'six o'clock' razor blades were sold in threes rather than fives. Saucepans and lids were sold individually. And Woolworth became the butt for many musical hall jokes after deciding to sell woollen socks individually rather than as a pair. Ernest Hastings included a comedy verse about the decision to sell clothing in pieces in his song 'Nothing over Sixpence':
Many people called sixpence 'a tanner'.
But the Buyers were unwilling to accept customer suggestions for a workaround after announcing that they would be dropping one of the chain's most popular lines, Crown Gramophone Records. It seemed not even Woolworth was willing to stoop to charging sixpence for the disc and a further threepence for the hole in the middle, or a further sixpence for the song on the back, as some had suggested. Company rules insisted that for a price to be split customers had to be able to buy just one piece, like a saucepan or a lid. The final batch of records were sold in December 1937. In January 1938 their space was taken by a large display of tinned peaches and canned cream.
Probably the best-loved item of the 1930s was the VP Twin Pocket Camera, which was made for by Elliots. This was a great example of technical innovation at its best; the supplier applied the latest research into plastics to create a Bakelite resin flexible enough to mould into a camera. The wonder material was used for everything except the lens, shutter and spindle wheel. Most cameras had a tortoise-shell finish, some were in brighter colours.
While initial design work was expensive, the combination of mass-production and the sheer scale of Woolworth meant that the cameras could be produced in huge quantities and sold at a market-beating price. When the cameras first went on sale in 1936 they were sixpence (2½p). The price was only a tenth of the five shilling (25p) cost of Kodak's Box Brownie.
The sixpenny price could not be sustained for long, but Executives did not want to sacrifice one of their most popular lines. Instead it was agreed that camera would be offered in kit form.
From Spring 1937 the backplate was sold separately from the main camera frame. Two sixpenny parts were required to make a complete camera. Continued inflation forced a further rise in 1939, when the shutter and lens became a third sixpenny component.
The cameras continued to sell well at 'one and six' (7½p). Very few customers complained that the true price exceeded the stated maximum.
Unlike today's digital devices that focus automatically, the VP Twin had no controls or flash. It was described as as 'outdoors only'.
The pictures on the left are from a film taken by a shopper from the Ipswich store on a trip to London in 1939. The camera and a full set of prints cost just three shillings (15p).
We bought the camera in its box, complete with the snaps in their original envelope with the receipt at auction. It cost a little more than the original three bob. As if the discovery was not a big enough surprise, we found that the camera worked straight out of the box and takes a standard-size film which is still readily available seventy-five years after the VP Twin was first offered for sale. It is hard to believe that the camera outlived the store that sold it, but it remains a true wonder of Woolworth!
Quick links to related content in the Woolworths Museum