Horticulture - a century of garden shrubs, plants, bulbs and tools
The High Street store chain sold flower bulbs, shrubs, plants and seeds for ninety-nine years. Even today, if you see a daffodil or tulip in bloom anywhere in the UK, there's a one in three chance that the bulb originally came from Woolworths!
Before World War II bulbs and shrubs were sold loose rather than in packs. Bulbs like daffodils and tulips were one old penny each (½p), rosebuds (grafted small twigs of rose bush) were three pence (1.25p) and hybrid bulbs like prepared hyacinths were five pence (2p) each. Tiny bulbs like crocuses and muscari were three for a penny (7 for 1p).
Each September bulbs, shrubs, plant pots and bulb fibre 'grew' taking about a sixth of the total space in-store !
In wartime F.W.Woolworth played a key role in the 'Dig for Victory' campaign which encouraged Britons to dig up their lawns and borders and plant seed potatoes and other vegetables to help feed the nation. After the long conflict the chain continued to outsell the combined efforts of nurseries and garden centres, with a market-beating selection of seeds, shrubs, roses and garden tools.
The offer was updated in the 1980s. Woolworths won a coveted Gold Medal at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for five successive years. Two roses were named in its honour. The leading grower and long-time friend of the brand, Harry Wheatcroft, styled a hybrid tea rose, Chelsea Gold, and later a floribunda was also baptized The Wonder of Woolies.
In the 1910s and 1920s many Woolworth customers didn't have a garden, just a small back yard or a simple window box. The retailer aimed to help them to create a splash of colour, or to grow a few vegetables despite the restricted space. Leaflets explained how to achieve the maximum yield. Many of the homes that were built in suburbs in the Thirties had a little land of their own. In some areas a new semi-detached house with electricity, running water and a small garden could be purchased for just £200. Woolworth went to great lengths to attract the new homeowners, opening stores near the new developments and offering tools, brushes, utensils and floor coverings for the house and many varitieties of shrub, plants and bulbs to make the garden bloom.
By 1930 the firm had become the stand-out market leader for gardening products, selling millions of packets of vegetable and flower seeds from the leading nurseries, including Bees, Carters and R. & G. Cuthbert. At the time there was no such thing as a garden centre, just a counter at the front of Woolies! To compliment the plants, there were also pots, seed trays, fertilisers and 'bags of dirt'. The compost was sold in vast quantities in small bags with carrying handles for just a penny or two.
The Buyer built a tight-knit group of suppliers. He rewarded their loyalty with guaranteed regular orders. Orders and sales were planned with the partners at least a year in advance.
Before the war, goods were sent to stores by train. Each Spring every branch received so many seed potatoes and onion sets sold that a whole railway carriage was needed. The large store sent their horse and cart to the station to collect them, while the smaller stores waited up to a week for Carter Paterson to deliver them to the door. In the early summer the process was repeated for roses and shrubs.
Each branch stocked an exclusive range of tools made by Jenks and Cattell of Wolverhampton. These had wooden handles and distinctive scarlet red blades. The jaw-drop price of sixpence, equivalent to £2.11 each today, guaranteed bumper sales. Woolworth made one penny on each item.
Many of the shrubs were grown by the nurseries of East Anglia and Cambridgeshire, while the majority of the bulbs were imported from Holland.
Other best sellers in the 1930s included rubber garden hoses for threepence, grass seed which was sold loose at sixpence for six ounces (about fifteen pence a kilo at the time), as well as yard-lengths of picket fencing for sixpence (around 3p per metre).
The window display on the right was photographed in Church Street, Liverpool. It was then printed as a postcard and copied right across the chain. The same display appeared in more than four hundred different windows.
Just weeks after the Autumn Bulb display above went on sale in the store in Kilburn, London NW4 went on sale, Britain declared war on Germany. By the following year the sixpenny price limit had gone forever, and instead of flowers the focus was on growing food to supplement wartime rationing and to fill the gap left by a sea blockade which prevented imports from the Empire.
Cuthbert's seeds, a special favourite at Woolworth's, played a key part in the Ministry of Food's Dig for Victory campaign and helped inspire a new generation of gardeners.
In the years straight after the war, austerity measures meant that food was rationed more strictly than at the height of the Blitz. Families were glad of the runner beans, carrots and potatoes that they had grown in their flower borders or dug-up lawns.
The High Street stores extended their displays of vegetable seeds to meet strong customer demand. Colourful signs were used to inform shoppers of the exceptionally high yields that could be expected from the R & G Cuthbert range.
"Is this a record," they asked, "two pounds and twelve ounces of carrots from a single fourpenny packet?" (In equivalent terms that would be 1.15 kg for two pence, or around 8¢.)
Sales rose as customers experimented both with traditional varieties and new 'continental' lines. As ever Woolworth had adapted to fit the economic conditions of the time.
The picture above shows that the seed counter was allocated a large space in-store in the Spring. It also shows how seed prices had been maintained in the foreground, while others had risen up to seven-fold compared with the pre-war maximum.
War austerity measures were gradually relaxed. By 1950 the stores were able to supplement the vegetables and compost with flower seeds, shrubs and rose bushes once again.
In a new departure, executives signed up a string of radio and television personalities to write gardening tips each season, which were distributed in free magazines and leaflets. These were funded by advertising from the major suppliers. This type of celebrity endorsement had proved effective in the USA and was recommended by the parent company. Between 1950 and 1980 Clay Jones, Harry Wheatcroft and Fred Streeter all developed strong followings for their topical tips and gardening calendars. As well as the freebie leaflets, each featured in colour books which were sold at Christmas.
New ranges targeted affluent customers. There were displays of wrought iron gates, Atco Petrol Mowers and aluminium Crittall Greenhouses. Woolco invited people to 'buy now and pay later' with a new chargecard. The idea was so popular that by the 1970s all stores offered credit terms.
Each year most of the High Street stores sold bedding plants, which the Managers bought in from local nurseries.
The era saw the rise of independent out-of-town garden centres, as an increasing number of households got cars. Woolworth responded with price cuts and emphasized the convenience of 'the garden centre in your High Street'.
From 1976, where space allowed, back yards of the largest stores were converted to outdoor Garden Centres, where the selection of growing plants could be displayed to advantage. The natural light and ease of watering also helped to extend the shelf life of the shrubs and blooms.
The new owners took a long, hard look at the business, eliminating many of the ranges across the store and specialising in six specialist 'stories' that Woolworths could be famous for. One of the six was 'Home, Kitchen and Garden', with the firm's horticulture offer getting a full-scale makeover. Shrubs, rosebushes and trees were made more practical with carry-home packaging in bright colours. Each packet included pictures of what the full-grown plant would look like. The largest stores were sold, prompting the elimination of some of the bulkiest products from the range and efforts to remove duplication within the selection. The chain licenced the Cuthbert brand name and used it as an own label for fertilizers, garden tools and accessories, which continued to be supplied by ICI, Pan Britannica Industries and Jenks and Cattell. A selection of supplier brands, including Spear and Jackson tools, were offered at half of the manufacturer's recommended price. The remaining stores with Garden Centres were given autonomy to make purchases from local nurseries within a framework of pricing and display guidelines, allowing them to prosper.
Further success at the Chelsea Flower Show (where the company won a gold medal each year from 1984 to 1988), prompted the leading grower Harry Wheatcroft to graft a special Woolworth rose - the Hybrid Tea 'Chelsea Gold' in 1987. In 1995, marking the continued success of the gardening offer, the chain was able to follow this up with an elegant Florbunda called 'The Wonder of Woolies', with dainty orange blooms and a good scent. As with every plant sold it was backed by a guarantee that it would grow, or your money back !
Despite continuing good sales, profits declined during the 1990s. This reflected both increased competition as Garden Centres consolidated into chains and were able to offer more competitive prices, and the decision of leading supermarkets to stock seeds and packet shrubs as part of their general merchandise offer, along with specials on tools and plant pots. But it also illustrated a more fundamental problem.
For many years internally the company had called gardening 'The Manager's Department', knowing that special expertise and follow-up was required to get the stock on sale quickly and to keep plants watered and stocks rotated. If a Store Manager adopted the department the displays would look good and the plants would sell through at full price. But it would only take a day or two's neglect for everything to look half dead, requiring deep price cuts and sympathetic customers to try to 'rescue' the withering shrubs. Learnings from earlier years like Clay Jones's guides 'for the horti-girl' had been lost.
A key change between 1990 and 2005 was the high labour turnover among Store Managers, now a sought-after commodity by supermarkets keen to enhance their general merchandise offers, and also among the Buying team at Head Office. In the chain's final fifteen years in the High Street Gardening had fifteen different Buyers and fifteen different Assistant Buyers. Without the experience and training the number of poor-looking stores started to outnumber the good ones, putting the gardening offer under pressure. Decline in the 1990s prompted bigger changes after the chain's demerger from Kingfisher, as the new management pursued a 'Kids and Celebrations' strategy, that required the lion's share of store space.
The Gardening Buyer had to be imaginative to align the range with the Kids and Celebrations strategy. New products with high child-appeal were added. Special seed kits and starter packs of mustard and cress and other out-of-the-box salads and vegetables proved ideal for school projects.
Garden gnomes became a surprise hit. The new range mixed a traditional style with trendy designs featuring the latest character brands. Paint your own gnomes and plant pots made good Christmas gifts, as something families could do together.
The introduction of the mail order catalogue 'The Big Red Book' allowed the firm to offer large items like petrol and electric lawnmowers, strimmers, hedgetrimmers and garden sheds without carrying the stock in-store, with convenient home delivery. Such 'direct' lines, which were delivered from the supplier straight to the customer's home, were among the most profitable lines sold from catalogues and the firm's website.
Ironically, given a long-running TV campaign, one feature (left) in the Winter 2008 catalogue provided a good way to 'Compare the Meerkat'!
Today Woolies is a dotcom, and as the brand blossoms on-line, Shop Direct Group has a long, proud tradition to build on.
But whatever the future direction, for years to come, each Spring the UK will bloom with the Wonder of Woolies, Chelsea Gold and Cuthbert daffodils, tulips and countless shrubs from the much loved and much missed High Street stores.
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