The A to Z of WOOLWORTHS Advertising
Advertising saved Woolworths more than once and is still fondly remembered by many people. The new on-line brand owners have maintained the tradition with lots of ads on TV at peak times.
said Frank Woolworth
"That is our advertising."
Don't imagine that the Founder didn't like advertising - he never skimped on handbills or press advertising for store openings. Quite simply in the early days he didn't have to advertise once a store was open. Woolworth goods were so much cheaper and better than the competition that word of mouth was enough. If a rival store began to threaten, the firm could afford to drop its prices until they gave up.
Every store opening from 1879 until 2008 was supported by advertising - in fact one opened at Bitterne, Southampton only a fortnight before the British Woolworths crashed into Administration. Like the first store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Woolworths Big W openings in Aberdeen and Swansea were supported by handbills delivered door-to door. Most openings were also press or radio advertised, with a few advertised on television or by billboard trucks or buses around town.
Fun was always in abundance for openings. Frank Woolworth arranged an orchestra and a string quartet for store openings - and more recently a brass band and a stilt walker were among the many attractions.
The booklet contained tips for "Hobbies, Home, Pets, Toilet ... everything! ". It encouraged customers to trade up. It was interwoven with ads for the products of the day - all funded by the suppliers. It was a hit!
Home adornment featured strongly in "Good Things To Know", with design ideas for every room in the home. Suppliers found that, by using the pages of the magazine they could illustrate how to use their products alongside an advertisement, all serving to boost sales. Room settings and 'how to' guides continued to feature in the store chain's catalogues and advertising right through to the final Big Red Book in Winter 2008/9.
In honour of their favourite store, in 1935 students from Liverpool University included a spoof ad in the centre spread of their Rag Mag headed "GET IT FROM WOOLIES!", and with the slogan "What can't you get for sixpence at WOOLWORTH'S CHURCH STREET, LIVERPOOL, 1"
January and July were sale months at Woolworths stores every year frome 1880 to the 'biggest ever £50m clearout' in July 2008, always supported by strong window point of sale and unbeatable deals across the store. In the 1930s, suppliers competed for window space, wooing window dressers with elaborate display materials and design ideas - proving Frank Woolworth's adage about the windows as shown under the letter 'D' on this page. It is simply amazing what they achieved with the simplest materials - paper signs, bandanas and mirrors.
Keeping prices down to the upper limit of sixpence (2½p) was the major pre-occupation of the Buyers throughout the 1930s. In America, faced with intense competition, F. W. Woolworth Co had introduced a 15cent (9d or 4¼p) line in 1932, before dropping the upper limit altogether in 1935. In the UK ruses were used to maintain the limit until the outbreak of World War II. The longer they kept the prices down, the more successful they became. Finally in 1940 the Buyers gave in to the inevitable and announced that the limit had been suspended in 1940's Good Things To Know.
Letting people know where to find Woolies was the key priority during the 1940s as store after store was damaged in the Blitz. The firm's defiant slogan was 'we never close', and the Directors were very proud of the way that their staff found ways of re-opening when the worst happened. For example, weeks after the superstore in Plymouth was destroyed by enemy action, a large temporary branch opened in the City's market.
Market changes in the 1950s encouraged post-war Woolies bosses to make radical changes to the chain's brand-positioning, marketing and public relations. Despite the austerity and rationing of the late Forties, customers were determined to "win the peace", demanding higher standards of living, more comfort and convenience and seeking out modern designs for their homes. For F. W. Woolworth, no longer constrained by an upper price limit and with a strong base of domestic and internatonal suppliers, this presented a big opportunity. The firm reinvented itself, pioneering the concept of 'Do It Yourself' and offering stylish designs for the home, kitchen and garden. Underpinning this was a highly effective advertising campaign.
New ranges and new stores were the hallmarks of Woolworths throughout the 1950s. During the decade the chain grew by 220 outlets, while in parallel many existing City Centre outlets were doubled or trebled in size. Woolworth shares topped the London Stock Exchange, standing second only to the giant ICI Corporation. Advertising became bigger and bolder. Like other retailers of the era, the chain started to develop a number of own-brand labels. THese included 'Household' and later 'Cover Plus' for paint and polish, 'Beacon' for homewares and Dinah Marsh for fashion accessories, while in 1964 most gave way for a single pervasive low entry price point brand, 'Winfield', which endured until 1982. For a spell in the early Sixties food was sold under the Kingsmere brand name, bizarrely named, it is said, after Frank Woolworth's favourite pet bulldog from the 1910s! 'Baby Doll' cosmetics became a smash hit of the late Sixties.
Organs were the unlikely candidate for the first Woolworths television commercial of modern times in 1975/6. Company records show that the idea of advertising on television was very controversial in the boardroom. The firm only appointed a Marketing Director for the first time in 1970, and the incumbent, the long-serving L. B. Sherlock, hired Peter Marsh of the late and lamented Advertising Agency Allen, Brady and Marsh to shape up a campaign of television commercials. They persuaded sceptics on the Board who argued that the expense couldn't be justified and no-one would remember the slogan 'That's the wonder of Woolworth' that they should give it a go.
As fate with have it, the unknown young star of the first commercial in the series, who appeared alongside the much-loved Crackerjack presenter Leslie Crowther, got in touch with the Virtual Museum, asking for a copy of the advert to show to her children. We were pleased to oblige and through the pages of the Museum are pleased to introduce Nicola Greenwood - superstar (below left).
The commercial was a big hit. Sherlock (who had served the firm for over forty years, rising from the stockroom to the boardroom, managing stores in-between), had captured the brand and personality perfectly - presenting Woolworth as aspirational and fun, with innovative products at good value prices. Organs, for example, were simple to play, suitable for everyone and at Woolworth prices were affordable too. All five of the Company's core values of latter years - product obsession, pride, innovation and simplicity in stores open for all were summarised in just 30 seconds!
The commercials are still remembered by press and public alike. There were many ads in the Wonder series, featuring (among others) Noel Edmonds, Sir Jimmy Young, Georgie Fame, Tony Blackburn, the Nolans, Henry Cooper, Barry Sheen and Gerald Harper. The campaign proved highly effective in attracting new shoppers to the stores, particularly at Christmas.
Public Relations is an essential part of any advertising strategy, and F.W. Woolworth's British and North American teams were widely acknowledged to be among the best in the industry. Frank Woolworth courted journalists in the 1890s before embarking on his flagship project, the Woolworth Building, which was was the world's tallest from 1912 until 1929. Even after the store chain demerged from Kingfisher it continued to box above their weight, with extensive media coverage for its Christmas ranges. City Editors were generally sympathetic to the brand and its Chief Executive, even when results were poor, right up until the weeks before the chain collapsed into Administration. This accentuated the public's sense of shock at the firm's spectacular collapse in the credit crunch.
Queen Elizabeth II has inspired the United Kingdom for over sixty years. Woolworth was proud to play a part at the start of her reign, as the source for countless souvenirs. The stores sold bunting and everything that Britain needed for party. The chain remained loyal supporters into the twenty-first century.
Her Majesty once told The Daily Mail that she had done her Christmas shopping at Woolworths. She was spotted occasionally in the large store in Peascod Street, just a short walk from Windsor Castle.
Perhaps reflecting the changing personality of Woolworths by 2002, the chain did much less to mark the Queen's 50th Anniversary than for the Silver Jubilee, and angered royalists with a throw-away, PR-inspired story about a royal wedding, which suggested that souvenirs were already being designed for HRH Prince William's wedding.
It is said that Her Majesty is a regular web user. Perhaps the on-line Woolies will put things right!
In an ironic twist, an hour-long Radio 2 programme, 'The wonderful sound of Woolies', featuring among others Virtual Museum author Paul Seaton and some of discs from this website, was recorded in September 2008 and scheduled for transmission at Christmas, in honour of the firm's hundredth year of trading. Between recording and the broadcast Woolworths went into Administration. By the time the show aired the stores were closing, with Producer Andrew Davies having to adapt his script accordingly. The presenter, popular veteran broadcaster Brian Matthew, regretted the 'uncertain future', choosing to finish the show:
The following morning the programme received five star reviews in the press, with The Guardian noting that if nostalgia could save a brand, on the basis of the broadcast Woolworths should have been opening stores rather than closing them.
Stars galore featured in Woolworths commercials over the chain's final third of a century in the High Street. Many made cameo appearances in a style of 'spectacular' Christmas advertising that has since been adopted as a house style by other retailers. The adverts of the 1970s were famous not only for their stars but for the sheer duration, often filling the entire commercial break with a choreographed performance or a specially commissioned song performed by a leading performer. See how many of the stars you can recognise in the film strips below before floating the picture with your mouse to see the names.
Trams were among the more unusual places to feature Woolworths advertising over the years. As well as conventional decal style side banner advertisements, the Wonder of Woolworth tram was a regular feature of the Blackpool illuminations in the 1970s. At the time the chain had three stores in the popular resort, including an iconic superstore on the corner of Promenade and Bank Hey Street. At the same time advertisements for the range of souvenirs and gifts also appeared widely on the London Underground. In recent years trams have started to reappear in the towns and cities of Great Britain. Perhaps one day the High Street stores will make a similar comeback!
Up-to-date advertising is a must. In a highly seasonal business Woolworths was keen to be able to choose the products and offers to feature on TV day-by-day according to sales in-store. A major barrier to this used to be the extended approval period for new material, which used to have to be checked against a series of standards prior to broadcast, adding a timelag of a week or more before a commercial could be aired. While part of the Kingfisher Group, Woolworths was able to pioneer a new approach, working with the regulators to agree a fast-path process to get an ad on TV. Using their muscle Kingfisher got ads signed off in outline, with the products and prices dropped into place right up to half an hour before transmission. This gave Woolworths, Comet, B&Q and Superdrug the chance to promote slow-moving products to effect a clearance, to compete against rival chains and, in the case of Woolies, to incorporate surprise hit CDs, films and computer games into the latest TV campaigns.
Value was the enduring essence of Woolworths, which sustained the brand for much its hundred years in the British High Street. When the management stuck with it and concentrated on getting decent quality products into the stores at jaw-drop prices, the chain prospered. But when talk changed to 'increasing basis points' (gobledegook for increasing margins), 'targeting a new demographic' (gobledegook for selling more expensive things to the exclusion of cheaper things) and 'focusing on basket size rather than footfall' (selling more to a smaller number of customers) things started to go wrong. 'Nothing over sixpence' saw the chain grow from nothing to dominate British High Streets. Later the value position was re-established in 1964 by the Winfield low entry price point (budget) range, and from 1975 in a series of advertising campaigns, including the 'Wonder of Woolworth' and 'Crackdown'. WorthIt!, which launched in 2005, was the next incarnation. Once again the message attracted new customers. Sales and profit finally started to recover after years of decline.
Woolworths' famous 'W' served the store chain as a trademark and emblem in five distinct guises over ninety-nine years in the British High Street. For the first fifty years a 'Diamond W' which had been drawn by the founder, Frank W. Woolworth, appeared on storefronts and product packaging as well as letterheads. It was replaced by a shopping basket W motif in 1959 as the British chain marked its golden jubilee, and by a more stylised shopping basket version when the chain's Winfield own label was rebranded in 1971. The chain changed hands in 1982, prompting the addition of an 's' on the end of the name. This officially recognised one of the nicknames that shoppers had used for more than seventy years. The new owners also took the opportunity to replace the 'W' with a plain sans-serif design after briefly dabbling with restoring the original diamond W. In 2001 the brand changed hands again. Work on a new identity for Woolworths Group plc spawned a serif on sans-serif motif, which became the final emblem before the brand moved on-line.
In 2002 a new house style required lots of 'W' words for promotions and brand communications. This forced copywriters to scrabble for their dictionaries. Wonder, Wonderful, Wonderland and Woolies were used regularly, supplemented by Wow, Wonga, Wizard, Wicked,
Xmas always marked the high point of the store chain's year. It was the time when everything came together - advertising, point of sale, the product range and customer service that created a unique magic. Even in recent times it is estimated that three-quarters of the nation visited the stores in the final twenty shopping days before the festival.
For many years Woolworths in the USA was nicknamed 'America's Christmas Store', and adopted the slogan on carrier bags and product packaging. The Company had a unique claim to fame in that it was Frank Woolworth who pioneered cheap Christmas Decorations in the USA, stocking glass baubles from the very first store in 1879.
Sadly for the years 2004 to 2008 'X' also accompanied the chain's annual sales figures, as they declined each year compared with the last under the Kids and Celebrations strategy evangelised by CEO Trevor Bish-Jones. Following the launch of WorthIt! in 2007 it seemed that the chain would move out of negative territory in 2008/9, until the credit crunch undermined the firm's banking arrangements and business model.
Year books marking key milestones played a key part in the cultural life of Woolworths around the world. In a tradition started by the Founder, the chain circulated books of photographs internally with mugshots of every senior executive and store manager. The tradition stretched right from 1890 to 2000, with another planned for the centenary. Frank Woolworth also edited a souvenir booklet for customers, telling the firm's story in 1919 with a pamphlet to mark the fortieth anniversary of his first store opening. The tradition was continued by further booklets in 1929, 1939, 1954 and 1979 in the USA, with the subsidiaries adding versions of their own in the UK in 1959 and in Germany in 1969 and 1999. In its previous incarnation the Virtual Museum brought the tradition up to date for the modern hi-tech world.
The Virtual Museum author, Paul Seaton, wrote and illustrated a history of the Company which was intended for distribution and sale to mark the hundredth birthday of the British store chain. After the firm's collapse into Administration he updated the text and published the book 'A Sixpenny Romance, celebrating a century of value at Woolworths' (ISBN 9780956382702, 3D and 6D Pictures Ltd) on the 100th anniversary of the first store opening, 5 November 2009. It remains in print and is available for sale on-line directly from the publisher or from Amazon.co.uk.
Zero. Sadly the total number of employees working for Woolworths stores in Britain, Ireland, the USA and Canada by 5 November 2009. By this date the British brand had been revived on-line. During the same year the German Woolworths survived administration and has been restored to health. It continues to operate a chain of medium-sized department stores today. Z also stands for Zimbabwe, where, by a quirk of fate, a former British F.W. Woolworth continues to trade from its original store building, now as part the unrelated Woolworths Department Store chain of neighbouring South Africa.