China and Glass at Woolworths
There were many china and glass items in the original Woolworth stores in Utica, New York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The founder, Frank Woolworth, was among the first to embrace factory mass production to drive down manufacturing costs, so that he could offer well-made items at a fraction of the previous price. The formula caught the imagination of shoppers and helped Woolworth's to grow and prosper in North America.
As others embraced the 5 & 10¢ Store idea, Woolworth established a Syndicate with family members and former co-workers, and supplied them with goods. He tracked his products to their source, buying direct from the factories. This took him to Europe, where manufacturing was more advanced. He visited twice a year from 1890 onwards, buying china from the English potteries in Hanley and Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, before heading to London for paper products, and on to Europe for Toys, Decorations and Novelties.
The European luxuries gave Woolworth an edge, which kept his stores ahead. The buying trips also inspired the first openings overseas as the first Threepenny and Sixpenny Store opened in Liverpool, England in 1909.
By the turn of the twentieth century the largest stores gave pride of place to china and glass. The flagship in Lancaster had elaborate displays and sold thousands of pieces daily.
The huge turnover was powered by a reshipping warehouse in New York , which received large packing cases from the docks, unpacked them and prepared consignments for the hundred Syndicate stores across the USA and Canada.
The business model was highly lucrative. The 10¢ price was unbeatable, yet still left a margin of up to seventy percent, even taking account of the handling and shipping costs. The profit allowed the Woolworth to take risks. Factories were encouraged to experiment, inspiring bright colours, modern patterns and new shapes of plates and bowls, as well as a remarkable selection of vases and ornaments.
As his firm grew, Frank hired an Assistant in New York, but handled most of the overseas buying himself. He was a poor sailor and found the sea crossing difficult. He followed the Blue Riband route from New York and Liverpool, and took trains and horse-drawn carriages to cross Europe. He later kept a car, complete with chauffeur, in Europe.
Suppliers found Woolworth friendly and affable. He was a win-win negotiator. The car was intended to demonstrate the potential benefit of agreeing to supply the Five-and-Ten.
Woolworth was particularly keen to track down sources for Willow pattern china (below). He chose several designs, some made of fine bone china and others of pottery or glazed earthenware. Many pieces were sold before he struck on an alternative, exclusive design called 'Fibre' (right). Pieces were backstamped 'Woolworth' or 'Imperial Woolworth' and became best-sellers, particularly in Canada. The pattern was also chosen for the early British stores.
Many of the Woolworth china items sold for just threepence (UK) or five cents (USA), the equivalent of around one pound, one euro or $1.75¢ today. Company policy encouraged Buyers to stock each pattern for an extended period. This gave customers time to build a set piece-by-piece. To keep them coming back there were occasional specials in slightly different-shapes. Some surviving collections include several different matching milk jugs or sugar bowls, and a few ultra-rare large oval serving dishes, cake and bread and butter plates survive. The constant adaptations illustrate Woolworth's flair for marketing, tempting customers to add an extra piece or two regularly.
It later transpired that the 5&10¢ supremo's buying trips would have a lasting impact on the British subsidiary. He met regularly with a bright, young freight clerk at one of the potteries. Woolworth was impressed with William Lawrence Stephenson, who always made sure that the goods were packed and despatched on time. The clerk knew how to persuade Frank to trade-up, try something knew and pay extra for exclusive lines.
Later, when the media criticised the American 'invasion' of the UK market, Stephenson became Woolworth's secret weapon. He was invited to join 'on the ground floor'. The new man began in the Summer of 1909 and played a key role in shaping the first store. His knowledge of local china and glass was invaluable. He rose to become MD in 1923, and was at the helm as the F.W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. 3d and 6d Stores grew from 120 to 768 and became the largest and most profitable retailer in the British Isles.
As the Woolworth formula took hold in Britain, alongside the 'fancy' sixpenny
The Woolworth Buyers built strong relationships with the Staffordshire potteries and were always on the look-out for new styles and designs. Where an item appeared to have potential it was put on 'try-out' in a small number of stores, where staff were given special paperwork to report on sales and customer reaction. This was particularly helpful in pinpointing the most popular patterns and colours. It ensured that the stores received the right mix of pieces to help customers to build sets. Although bureaucratic, the 'Woolworth system' kept the buyers in touch with changing customer tastes and gave the firm great flight of foot. Within a fortnight of finding a winner, the Buyer had to complete negotiations and place orders for all the stores across Britain and Ireland.
At the outset, both Frank Woolworth and the British MD, his cousin Fred, insisted that the Buyers develop a good three penny range, rather than focus all of their energy on the 6d lines. They wanted to stock goods that every customer could afford, insisting on basic as well as 'fancy' designs.
When he took over the helm, Stephenson stepped up the pressure for low-priced lines, using the knowledge from his early career to drive a harder bargain in the Potteries.
Some of the threepenny lines were 'seconds' with slight flaws; others were ends-of-ranges. In the 1930s the Buyers played on the threat that new Bakelite (plastic) items might pose to traditional pottery and china to hold prices down. In fact Woolworth chose Bakelite principally for electric fittings, cameras, jewellery and ornaments, using it only for a small range of oven-to-tableware in the Kitchen Department.
During the 1930s Woolworth opened a store every few days, with the chain doubling in size from 375 to 750 stores.
As Britain came out of the Great Depression, and particularly as the country started to re-arm in response to fears about a war with Germany, factory prices started to rise. Rival stores had little choice but to increase prices to the customer.
Woolworth's rapid expansion allowed it to increase the quantities that it ordered. In exchange suppliers were expected to reduce their costs, if they wanted to retain the company's patronage.
With value to boast about, new fancy price signs were printed for key lines, which also featured in press advertising for new store openings and in the company's popular Good Things To Know magazine.
To complement the displays of china, F. W. Woolworth stores stocked a comprehensive range of glassware. The firm chose good designs and then had them mass produced, thousands or sometimes millions of times. Many were made of lead crystal with ornate patterns. The best sellers were vases, jugs and tumblers, all selling for sixpence or less.
Today, in the 21st Century, some the best selling sixpenny items from the era appear regularly at Antique Fairs. Some collectors manage to sell individual wine glasses in the Woolworth Greek Key pattern for as much as £5, while a surviving champagne coupe from the range commands up to £20. It really was a Saturday special !
The outbreak of World War II brought new challenges for Woolworth. Rapid price inflation forced the company to drop the long-held upper price limit of sixpence in 1940, while new restrictions limited shops to selling only practical items. While very commendable in principle, suppliers like Sherdley didn't have moulds or capacity to convert their production at a time when engineers and toolmakers were commited to the war effort. As a result, to work around the new rules, a number of pre-war designs like vases were renamed 'celery vases' and back-stamped with the word 'CELERY' to allow them to be reclassified as practical products !
Other Woolworth suppliers were instructed to convert their production to munitions, or were awarded contracts to supply the armed services. Keeping the stores stocked became a battle. By late 1941, news of an upcoming delivery of an item that was in short supply attracted long queues in-store. Consignments sold out within minutes, as demand exceeded supply. This pushed cost prices up further.
The shortages continued after the Allied victory in 1945. A government export drive compelled factories to send the bulk of their production overseas, raising foreign exchange to repay loans taken out at the beginning of the War. The newly-appointed Woolworth Buyers were determined to overcome the shortages. By 1947 they had devised new supply routes to work around the regulations. They were able to place orders through the chain's store in Henry Street, Dublin. The Irish Republic had no import or export controls and had a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. Glassware was imported to Dublin from Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Block countries, and then shipped on to Ulster and across to the Mainland. Customers were happy to pay a price premium to get the items that they wanted.
The stores started to explore new display techniques. The rising shelves above the main display proved very effective in 1948. They brought examples from the range up to eye level, where customers could examine them more easily.
Between 1938 and 1948 prices had risen six fold. Items on the top shelf that had sold for sixpence (2½p) in 1938, cost as much as three shillings and sixpence (17½p).
Without the upper limit the stores were also free to sell sets like the sugar bowl and cream jug in the bottom right of the picture, which was five shillings and sixpence (27½p).
Woolworth sales rose rapidly between 1948 and 1952. This was partly because the chain recovered more quickly from the War. They were also boosted by post-war regulations.
In the early Fifties, British life started to return to normal. More products started to reach the shops. The Buyers kept their fingers on the pulse. As customer incomes rose, the range became more stylish and aspirational, particularly in china and glassware.
A search for contemporary designs took the Buyers to Art Colleges and Polytechnics. Such schools embraced new manufacturing techniques, encouraged by the Board of Trade. Woolworth looked for bright colours and bold designs.
Despite the dragnet, they almost missed the all-time best seller. The Buyer met a young designer, Enid Seeney, and agreed to try out some of her patterns. She expressed surprise that he had passed up her best work, and asked him to reconsider her design called Homemaker . He was unconvinced, but reluctantly agreed to a small test purchase.
Seeney told video viewers that she heard nothing else, until she walked into the large Plymouth Woolworth's store and saw an entire wall display of Homemaker. The pattern went on to become an icon of the age, and kept factories busy right across Staffordshire for several years.
In the 1960s the focus was on expanding the ranges, with priority given to DIY and Fashions. As competition increased, most new China and Glass was chosen for price rather than style. For example cup, saucer and sideplate sets were just two shillings and ninepence (14p or 20¢) in 1963. Like the threepenny sets of the 1930s, these were very basic.
The following year an own-brand was launched. This brought many lines that previous carried the supplier's name into Winfield packaging, with the slogan "it's the mark of value".
The mass market approach required conservative designs for maximum appeal, leaving the offer differentiated on price alone until the mid 1980s. During the same period an increasing number of products were imported to obtain the lowest possible cost price.
There were occasional exceptions to the bland designs, including a specially commissioned range of Beatles china, featuring signed photos of John, Paul, George and Ringo. These were made for Woolworth's by Washington Pottery Ltd of Stoke-on-Trent (right), and were also sold in Woolworth stores in the USA and Canada. They are now highly collectable.
Another smash hit was the Alfred Meakin Potteries Ltd's Hedgerow pattern, which is shown below. This design proved a big hit with customers and many homes still use a few pieces in the UK today.
The 1970s also saw the introduction of earthenware and oven-to-tableware products, as well as Noritake fine porcelain china from Japan. The new Shoppers World subsidiary included four pages of china and two pages of glassware in its Argos-like catalogue.
In 1982 Woolworth's American parent company sold its controlling interest in the British subsidiary to a consortium of investors. The new owners repositioned the brand, specialising in six key product groups . They identified the 'Kitchen Shop' as a key development area, which received a major overhaul and a new, more stylish range. This was progressively extended across the chain as part of 'Operation Focus' between 1985 and 1989.
At the heart of the new offer was a mix'n'match range of china for 49p and later 69p per piece, kitchen utensils in a choice of either red or buttermilk (a cream colour) and a new own label 'Monarch', which was used extensively on items for the home, kitchen and bathroom. The Commercial Managing Director, Mair Barnes, who had been headhunted from the House of Fraser and was the driving force behind the transformation, told viewers of a corporate video that the new range 'added new style about the home and was modern and up-to-date'. Customer reaction was very positive and the Kitchen Shop remained a core part of the store offer for the next eighteen years.
The 1990s saw further refinements to the Home ranges. Initially attention was concentrated on price, with new value-for-money lines introduced between 1992 and 1994 under the banner 'Street Value' as part of a store-wide initiative in support of the parent company's everyday low price philosophy. But later in the decade there was a resurgence of style, as new look Kitchen shops were added to the stores in city centres and major market towns, and the displays in the smaller stores were extended.
The new up-market ranges sold well. Customers particularly liked Johnson Brothers' 'Eternal Beau' china, which was stocked nationally. Sales of Kitchenware rose rapidly, but overall store sales per foot in-store fell after the layout changes. To tackle the shortfall, the firm introduced on ordering service, backed by a 'Woolworths Direct' catalogue.
The elegant Kitchen and Bathroom ranges were the best sellers from the extended range, and later appeared in a dedicated 'minilogue' which was published in Spring 2000.
Like many initiatives, Woolworths Direct went on to see a number of 'about-turns' over the next decade. After the stores separated from Kingfisher in 2001, the new CEO, Trevor Bish-Jones, chose to focus on 'Kids and Celebrations' and to target the offer to the needs of Mums and young families. Under the strategy the Kitchen shop was scaled back to make room for larger displays of Kidswear and Toys. Prices in the Kitchen department rose as the chain moved up-market and concentrated on more stylish home adornment products and trimmed the selection of basics like buckets and bowls.
It is believed that the regular changes of direction confused customers. While they were all explained away at the time, in retrospect they appear quite bizarre:
Sadly just as it appeared that the low-priced WorthIt! approach had turned the tide and attracted new customers into the stores, the chain's bankers pulled the plug. They believed that the business had become vulnerable to a downturn in the market, and refused to provide additional cash to fund the increasing demands of the Group's wholesale division at the height of the credit crunch. The chain collapsed into Administration in November 2008. No buyer was found for the stores as a going concern. They all closed within forty-one days of the collapse.
After the demise in the High Street, Shop Direct Group stepped in to save the brand, and have since revived and revitalised Woolworths on-line. They are building on a long and proud tradition.
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