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Product Development and Diversification in the 1970s


Throughout the 1970s the British Woolworth Board focused much of its energy on product development and brand diversification. They continued to pursue the goal of making the city centre stores as large as possible. Executives aimed to find additional ranges with higher profit margins to improve the goliaths' economics and to allow them to compete with the major department stores. As the decade continued they established a new Superstores Division with responsibility for both the largest Woolworth stores and the new out-of-town Woolco Hypermarkets, which shared a common range.

The plan was to cherry-pick the best of the new ranges for the 750 smaller stores in Market Towns and local High Streets. But for most of the decade this more profitable part of the chain received very little attention. This page shows some of the new ideas that were tested in the Seventies. Few made it to the High Street, as they were dropped in a major rethink after the firm changed hands in 1982.


Ladies fashions at Woolco, Middleton in 1974 Fashion accessories for the cosmopolitan woman - a new range for 1975 Ladies fashion boutique, which piloted at the new Woolworth store in Cyprus in the 1970s Models were hired for fashion shows and photography for catalogues and PR Bright 1970s colours in evidence at the re-opened Colchester store in the 1970s


The first major area of range development was Fashion. The chain aimed to build on its long-established range of underwear and socks by becoming a major outlet for budget clothing for all the family. The aim was to hire in external expertise to develop contemporary designs at jaw-drop prices that would help the firm to take market share from the established market leaders, Marks and Spencer, British Home Stores and Littlewoods. Fashions had the potential to offer much higher margins than confectionery, records or toys, particularly as Woolworth had more branches and, they believed, buying power than the three rivals together. There were occasional hits within the range, but customers soon found that, while the garments often looked like the catwalk and rival store equivalents at a fraction of the price, they were often made from uncomfortable synthetic materials and without the garment technology or quality control of M&S.


Spot the dummy wearing Woolworth clothes ... a mannequin sports the latest 1970s look Shetland Wool featured in displays from 1979 - a direct response to customer concerns about man made materials A budget account was introduced to allow people to replace their whole wardrobe. For larger purchases interest-free credit was also available at sale time. The chain's 1970s shoe range comprised modern styles at budget prices and sought to grab some of the market from the British Shoe Corporation Sports shoes were introduced into the largest stores, spanning golf shoes, football boots and trainers


In 1977 a new 'customer panels' initiative established focus groups of regular shoppers and invited them to give feedback about the chain and its products. The guided conversations asked for input about the fashion range and soon revealed deepset concerns about the man-made materials used in the manufacture. Customers found the polyester and nylon garments uncomfortable and complained that they did not last well and were hard to wash. This prompted a major re-think. As a result the Buyers introduced more natural fibres, switching to woollen knitwear and cotton blouses, shirts, skirts and trousers. They also switched much of the production to the British and Irish factories of manufacturers with a proud tradition of product quality. Courtaulds, Mynards and Cooneen Textiles played a pivotal role in improving the sizing and finishing of the 1978 range. To mark the upgrade a major press advertising and PR campaign was launched with the slogan 'Oh Woolworth, how you've changed'. It fell on deaf ears. Customer panels later showed that an extended period of consistency would be required to win back shoppers who had been disappointed before.

Woolworth enjoyed more success with a selection of footwear and sports shoes. The Buyers were able to draw on the growing expertise of the American parent company, which had acquired a number of fashion chains during the 1960s and 1970s along with the Kinney Shoe Corporation. The British and American chains pooled resources to increase their buying power in the Far East and shared a number of lines on either side of the Atlantic. Customers remember that the golf shoes and trainers from the range were exceptional value for money and were very well made. Later the expertise that developed such lines in the USA helped the parent company to transform into the giant Footlocker company.


Homepac self-assembly furniture was heavily advertised in the 1970s and by the early 1980s Woolworths were experimenting with the idea of an out-of-town budget furniture shop to rival  MFI. Electronic organs were the surprise winner from the 1970s. They were regularly advertised and proved popular with customers of all ages. The trend started in Woolworth's in America and soon spread to Canada and Mexico before crossing the Atlantic The audio and television offer was expanded in the 1970s, though the chain struggled to persuade some of the leading brand names to sell to them. The best sellers of the decade were record players, eight-track stereos and transistor radios Angling was one of the big success stories of the 1970s. Woolworth became the market leader. The firm built a reputation for selling good quality fishing lines, bate boxes and accessories and affordable prices. The range of golf clubs was the heart of the leisure offer in the large City centre stores and also at Woolco out-of-town


Social changes in the Sixties and Seventies saw a shorter working week and rising disposable incomes. Woolworth responded with new ranges of leisure goods and by expanding the selections of radios, televisions and hi-fis, particularly in their larger stores. They enjoyed particular success with fishing and darts, where well-made, comprehensive ranges became good sellers and established the chain as the market leader. Audio and television proved more of a challenge, as the Buyers struggled to persuade the major brands to supply them. The makers feared that Woolworth would undercut the prices charged by their upmarket clients and that the chain's staff would be unable to provide the specialist advice and after-sales service which set the big names apart from the cheap brands.


Delicatessen counters were extended and improved. Executives at Woolworth's US parent company were amazed at the amounts of cheese that some of the British stores proved able to sell Delicatessen offered much higher margins than grocery and also added credibility to the large store food offer in the 1970s Some large Woolworth stores complemented their grocery offer with a selection of cooked meats and fresh fish, which were sold be weight at personal service counters. The smell of fresh bread was proved to increase sales across the whole food range Own label tinned fruit (originally part of the range in the 1930s) was reintroduced into all stores, with Goldhanger Fruit Farms working round the clock to meet demand.


Success with many of the new ranges was dependent on Woolworth becoming a specialist. Delicatessen and fresh food required improved store discipline and staff training, while customers expected advice and guidance before purchasing high-priced items like colour television sets. Executives recognised the need but struggled to find the funds to deliver the necessary upgrade, meaning that the execution of the new displays and the quality of customer service was eratic between one store and another. The sales performance varied widely between stores, which made it hard to identify which of the new ranges had the greatest potential.

Few of the new products ever appeared in the 750 smaller Woolworth stores in Market Towns and local High Streets, even though they featured heavily in the firm's advertising both in the press and on television. This led to some customer frustration, particularly when it seemed that their local staff did not know that the firm stocked some of the products and were unable to advise about where they could be found.

Just two of the ranges expanded during the Seventies went on to feature heavily across the store estate. The selection of music and entertainment and toys and games, trebled in size during the decade, before trebling again in the Eighties.


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