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Modern sweet brands hit the shelves in the 1950s

The last day before sweet rationing began at the Plymouth temporary store in 1941


World War II brought big changes to Woolworth's ranging policies. Within a year of the start of the war all sorts of everyday items were in short supply and most prices had doubled.

The Ministry of Food introduced rationing for many products, with the goal of spreading the available stocks fairly. Rations were reduced at the end of the war as an export drive left shops short of stock. Sweets remained rationed until 1953.


Woolworths Pic'n'Mix availability improved in 1946, and most prices had been held down to sixpence. The pictured store is the Weybridge, Surrey store, which opened in 1946.

While they could not workaround rationing, the Woolworth Buyers did find a number of innovative ways of getting plentiful stocks onto the confectionery counters. Traditionally a proportion of the weigh-out range had come factories in the Irish Republic. This was increased. The Emerald Isle was enjoying a period of prosperity and reaping the rewards from staying neutral during the World War. Irish Dairy Farmers were producing a surplus of full cream milk. By adding sugar they were able to make delicious fudge and all manner of confections.

A new Irish Buying Office, located above the premier store in Henry Street, Dublin, found a way to circumvent post-war import restrictions. Goods were purchased from Continental Europe, imported into Ireland (which had no import restrictions and free trade with the UK) before being sent north to Ulster or east to the mainland.


For old time's sake the headline price of pic'n'mix was kept down to sixpence a quarter for boiled sweets in the late 1940s. In equivalent terms, taking account of inflation, this was cheaper than before the war. Chocolate became part of a luxury range at a higher price. Some boxed chocolates which had been sold for sixpence for a half pound (2½p for 227g) had risen to half a crown (12½p) - a five-fold rise.


Extended displays of cold drinks and ice cream cones in the Portsmouth Woolworth store in 1949


The confectionery and snacks department was given pride of place at the front of the store. Mirrors were added to the wall counters to enhance new displays of bottled drinks. Chilled Pepsi Cola was the stand-out seller. The success of this icon of American culture may perhaps have been inspired by the billeting of US servicemen around the UK in the run-up to D-Day. Ice Cream, which remained unrationed, was in plentiful supply and was available in a dozen different varieties of cones and cornets, with toppings and sauces.

Another key change in the 1950s was the introduction of an increasing number of bar lines (single, wrapped bars of chocolate and candy) as well as gift items like boxes of chocolates. In the early 1950s it was quite normal to display pic'n'mix in one area of the store, drinks and ices in another and the shelved lines - chocolate bars, boxes and bags of sweets somewhere different again. Company bosses believed that most people bought these items on impulse rather than visiting specifically to buy them, meaning that they were dotted about between the main staple displays of toiletries, homewares and fancy goods.


A packed Woolworths store in Pontypool, Monmouthshire (Gwent) in 1954. (With special thanks to Reg and Ray Gallanders). Click to open a larger version of this picture in a new window A packed Woolworths store in Pontypool, Monmouthshire (Gwent) in 1954. (With special thanks to Reg and Ray Gallanders). Click to open a larger version of this picture in a new window

The picture on the left shows the store in Crown Buildings, George Street, Pontypool in Monmouthshire (Gwent) in 1954. In the foreground an Assistant is serving a Customer with Pic'n'Mix, while the store's displays of Chocolates are more than fifty feet away at the centre of the store straight inside the entrance.

The picture, like many in our museum was taken by Reg Gallanders, the store's manager, who served the Company with great dedication and commitment. It captures the atmosphere of a Fifties store perfectly, with the salesfloor bustling with shoppers and staff busily giving personal service at each island counters. To see the picture close up, click to open it in a new window.


The Fifties saw the start of big changes to the sales floor layout. The emerging trend in retailing, which began in the USA, was for stores to convert from personal service as shown in the picture above, to self-service displays with checkouts dotted around the store or guarding the entrance. This supermarket-style shopping is used in most shops in the twenty-first century, but sixty years ago Woolies customers proved highly resistant to the concept during trials in Cobham, Surrey and Didcot, Oxfordshire.

The new self-service layout makes it easier to discern the individual products in the photographs. Goods were shelved in several tiers, rather than being arranged between glass dividers on a single level counter-top. But for customers at the time it meant that they no longer had the opportunity for a friendly chat with the Assistants they had come to know over many years' shopping. They also found it harder to get advice about the products before deciding to buy.

The picture below shows the range of confectionery lines sold in the Didcot store when it opened its doors in 1956. Most of the brands that the public trust in the twenty-first century can be seen. A close inspection reveals slab chocolate from Cadbury, Nestlé and Rowntrees, along with Mars Confectionery, including Mars Bars, Maltesers and Treats.


One of the first self-service displays at Woolworths - the Didcot store's 1956 confectionery range


Although the early self-service stores got many things right, and in some ways were ahead of their time, there were plenty of mistakes. Company bosses had red faces when one branch opened with a sign stating 'This is a help yourself store'. It was clear at their annual stockcount that customers had taken them at their word and helped themselves to anything they fancied! Another blunder was the belief that it wouldn't be possible to sell pic'n'mix in a self-service environment, and the decision to stock only pre-bagged assortments. This was deeply unpopular and forced Executives to put their thinking caps on and come up with a display fixture and operation that would allow customers to choose and bag their own sweets. This set the standard for the next fifty years of trading in the High Street.


The original self-service stores dropped weigh-out products like pic'n'mix, replacing them with pre-weighed, standard size bags which were pre-packed at the factory


After a lot of soul-searching the Woolworths fixtures experts came up with a design for a self-service Pic'n'Mix counter. Just in case customers didn't like it, rather than testing it in a British store they sent it as far away as possible. The trial took place in the brand new store in Salisbury, Rhodesia (today known as Harare, Zimbabwe), as shown below. It proved a big hit, and before long the same fixture was installed at Guildford in Surrey and was soon incorporated into the specification for new stores.


Woolworths' first ever self-service pic'n'mix counter - pictured not in a British store, but tucked away in the Commonwealth in the new superstore in Salisbury, Rhodesia (Harare, Zimbabwe)


Saturday Assistant Julia Brown standing in front of the Pic'n'Mix sweet counter at the Woolworths store in Camberley, Surrey, UK on Fancy Dress Day in Summer 1987


The self-service fixture became a company standard for the next twenty-five years and still featured in a number of stores as late as 1987, as illustrated in the writer's own store at Camberley, Surrey.

However bad the fixture may look, as ever the range of sweets was unrivalled, in a tradition that helped to sustain the High Street stores for almost 100 years.


Fast links to related content in the Woolworths Museum

Pic'n'Mix and Sweets Gallery

Yankee Doodle Candy    Tuppence a Quarter    Visit a 1930s Sweet Factory

Rationing in World War II   A new world - the 1950s    Building a legend

Europe's biggest sweet shop     Candy Kings?    The Good Ship Lollipop

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Pic'n'Mix and Sweets Gallery     Home Page    Interactive