On Paper - a Century of Stationery, Cards and Books at Woolworths
When the very first Woolworth store opened in Utica, New York, USA in February 1879, the range included stationery. Exercise Books were a best seller. Thirty years later, the first British store stocked an assortment of paper products. The department became a regular feature at Woolies throughout its entire ninety-nine years in the High Street.
The Exercise Books, made of paper and card, were well suited to mass manufacture. The store's no frills approach was able to cut production costs and make the books available for just 5¢ each, including a profit of 1.28¢. For writing, Woolworth also sold 'Pencil Charms' for 5¢ in his first store, and, for a touch of the exotic, turkey red napkins were offered at the same price.
130 years later there were modern equivalents of all three items in the British High Street's chains WorthIt! range. Three scribbling pads were 25p (around 8p or 10¢ each), twenty bright red pencils with rubbers on the end and the Woolworths in bright gold lettering (around 5p or 7¢ each) and twenty WorthIt! red napkins for 49p (about 2½p or 4¢ each). In the intervening years general prices had risen by a multiple of forty-two times, yet the commodity items had gone up by no more than five-fold.
Initially Woolworth sold only practical products. He believed that thrifty shoppers wanted mass produced goods without frills, and concentrated on kitchenware, cleaning products and basic stationery, like pads and greaseproof paper.
Later he learnt that there was also demand for more fashionable and decorative items at dime store prices. He made it his mission to make luxuries affordable for ordinary people.
By 1890, as well as the basics, the 5 &10¢ sold brightly coloured greeting cards, sepia tone and pseudo-colour postcards and fancy 'velour' writing paper and envelopes. And by 1895 each store sold hundreds of miniature 5¢ novels each week, bought as a job-lot.
The store developed a range of cards using the latest European printing techniques. Black and white photographs of local views were coloured by hand in London or Berlin and printed in full colour. The 5¢ cards, which were officially published by Woolworth or members of his syndicate, became best sellers.
Building on the idea they added glamour views and colour drawings to make Birthday and Christmas Cards, and even calendars which could be mass-produced cheaply and sold at a profit. Millions of cards were sold each week.
The concept featured strongly in the first British stores. They produced a remarkable series of patriotic cards during the Great War.
At the peak of its success, the British operation overtook the sales of the market leader, W.H. Smith, on key ranges like Back to School. But through the century some of the uniqueness was wasted. For example a market-leading share of Birthday and Christmas Cards was gradually eroded as the focus moved from low prices to high style.
Similarly, after pioneering paperback books as the first major purchaser of sixpenny Penguin Books from the entrepreneur Allen Lane in the 1930s, and pioneering Mighty Midget miniature books for children at the height of the Blitz, the chain seemed to lose interest in its book range in the 1950s.
Over the century the chain struck on two million-selling winners. Its illustrated histories were must-haves for schoolchildren between 1920 and 1970, offering both child appeal with a cartoon format and serious academic content. Similarly its Seventies Project Books became a surprise hit. More than a hundred different titles were produced which give an insight into the comparative simplicity of childhood a generation ago.
The stationery ranges were overhauled in the 1980s and again after the millennium.
The Buyers were quick to spot the potential of character brands, extending the traditional strength in toys and videos to new co-ordinated selections of notebooks, pencils, files and folders featuring the hottest names.
New ranges for home offices attracted shoppers who had set up PCs and printers so they could work from home. Shredders and 80gsm reams of cheap paper proved particularly popular.
New own label arts and crafts, including Chad Valley Create and Colourplay became popular and profitable alternatives to the major brands.
After moving too far up-market, a new budget range called 'WorthIt!' started to win back shoppers from the discounters in 2006. The Stationery proved a particular hit. But it proved too late to stop the rot.
Since the collapse Shop Direct Group has taken the Woolworths brand on-line. They are building on a long and proud tradition.
Shortcuts to related content in the Woolworths Museum
Stationery, Cards and Books Gallery