Woolworths Christmas Catalogues (1929-2008)
In the early 1900s only upmarket department stores and mail order companies published catalogues. Then in 1929 the F.W. Woolworth Co. broke the mould as part of its fiftieth anniversary celebrations. It printed a million copies of a Home Shopping Guide and gave these away to customers across the USA and Canada. The simple booklets proved popular and a few survive to this day.
Rather than listing individual products and prices, the layout concentrated on the breadth of range available in-store.
Two versions were produced, reflecting the fact that the chain had traditionally recouped the increased cost of shipping west of the Rocky Mountains with a higher fifteen cent price limit.
In the months after publication customers often took the books into the stores with them, asking for some of the items that were mentioned or illustrated.
In 1931 shares in the British Woolworth subsidiary were listed on the London Stock Exchange. The company went on to dabble with press advertisements for its best-selling products, pitched to coincide with major store openings.
Then in 1938, it launched an 'advertorial' brochure called 'Good Things To Know'. Copies were threepence (1¼p)
The catalogue featured both supplier advertising and related editorial. It promoted the best sellers and how they could be used. The booklets were a big hit.
Work was underway on a second edition when war broke out with Germany. It was extensively rewritten and hit the shelves in Winter 1939. The simple, no frills layout was starkly different to the North American company's publication.
Americans remembered the suffering of the Great War and were strongly anti-war. The country, which had just come out of the hardship of the Great Depression, took a neutral stance, and enjoyed a period of growth and prosperity. Reflecting this, Woolworth US launched its first colour Catalog(ue), which included photographs of some of the more expensive lines that it had added since abandonning its upper price limit in 1935.
Great Britain stood alone against Germany. War brought shortages and higher prices. Good Things to Know 2 was austere. It had black and white pages on low-grade paper, with just a few line drawings. It showed how to make-do-and-mend, black out windows and identify enemy planes. It also passed on news of the temporary end of the sixpenny maximum price.
Ironically the American catalogue included a double-page spread photograph in which toy soldiers, sailors, boats and submarines had been arranged in a harbour layout. It was the firm's response to a craze for military toys. Most of the dyecast items shown were made in Japan.
It was more than thirty years before the British Company produced another catalogue. Instead they produced Mighty Midget comic books to help children through the darkest days of the Blitz. After the War Woolies had such a dominant sales position in the UK that catalogues were considered superfluous. Market conditions in the USA were very different. Woolworth faced stiff competition from many rival five-and-tens including S.S. Kresge, J.J. Newberry, W.T. Grant and Kress. Catalogues and advertising became an important part of their sales effort. It proved particularly effective in selling to children and their parents, employing techniques that might not have been allowed in Britain. Catalogues were dressed as comics and were given away to children. The pages alternated between comic strips and advertisements for the latest delights. The goal was to maximise 'pester-power' so that parents would buy toys and games in-store.
There were catalogues for homemakers too, backed by full-page colour advertisements in style magazines. A department was established to handle photography and much of the copywriting in-house. Before long many Americans thought they knew the sassy 'Susan Smart' who was able to create a modern, fashionable home on a limited budget by shopping at Woolworth's.
After immense success in the 1950s, trading performance at the British Woolworths started to slip back in the Sixties as rivals modernised and competition heated up. This opened the door for the American parent company to force through a series of new ideas which had been generated by Consultants and think-tanks in New York. These included experimental out-of-town 'Woolco' superstores, a new, cheap own brand 'Winfield' label and finally a colour Christmas Catalogue. In a ground-breaking move, in 1971 the sales aid was distributed as a pull-out insert in the UK's best selling weekly magazine of the day, the BBC's Radio Times.
Where once Woolworth had been the threepenny and sixpenny and sixpenny stores, the Christmas catalogues included more expensive products like electric organs at prices of up to fifty pounds. They were used as a showcase for new ranges, including Records and Tapes, Fashion and upmarket housewares. Before long the firm went one step further, opening a small chain of Shoppers World catalogue stores, complete with a big book catalogue. The idea came from Canada, where Woolworth operated a similar chain under the fascia Woolco Catalogue Stores.
The British launch of Shoppers World coincided with another, independent development, as the trading stamp company Green Shield Stamps rebranded themselves Argos and began to accept cash payment rather than simply operating as a redemption centre.
The colour catalogue offered an extensive range of products, drawn mainly from the range offered in the largest Woolworth and Woolco stores, often at much lower prices. Although initially Shoppers World had just a few shops, Woolworth established the infrastructure to photograph the products and layout the catalogues in-house, building on the American model.
To leverage the investment the best lines were also offered through a national 'Woolworth by Post' service, which was advertised in Radio Times. Orders were processed by the Shoppers World team.
By 1975 the British Woolworths had three different paper catalogues, one encouraging customers to shop the High Street stores at Christmas and two (Shoppers World and Woolworths By Post) aiming to prompt direct purchase.
By 1982 the Christmas Catalogue had grown to forty full colour pages in A4 format and was home delivered in the major conurbations, and was also available to collect in-store. The layout was loud and down-market. It featured the best selling budget lines, but majored on a hundred products that were priced at fifty pounds or more. The best sellers were a TS33 Tower Hi-Fi system from Alan Sugar's Amstrad (£159.95) and a Ferguson 3790 Moviestar 14" (30cm) colour TV (£189.95).
Days after its 1982 catalogue went to press, Woolworth UK was sold in a management buy-in. A big shake up followed.
During 1983 large freehold properties were sold, as the new owners cleared old stocks and items that were already in the pipeline. To effect the clearance, the 1983 Catalogue was the largest and loudest ever. It featured sinister cartoon circus people on the cover and contained the usual eclectic mix of cheap and expensive items under the banner 'The ever-more spectacular Christmas'.
For the tenth consecutive year, electric organs featured strongly, alongside a simulated mink jackets 'for the ladies' (£24.95) and men's Burlington shirts (£5.99). It offered a choice of computers, with a Commodore Vic 20 Starter set (£139.99) and a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (£99.95).
By 1985 the brand had moved in a new direction. Many of the old ranges had been dropped. Adult Fashion, Food, Hi Fi, Television and Computers were no longer stocked. Instead the stores concentrated on six key ranges, Gifts and Sweets, Entertainment, Looks, Home and Garden, Cards and Stationery and Kids Toys and Clothing. The changes were reflected in a new style of catalogue which had an up-market feel. The layout incorporated more white space and a crisper design. It showcased the chain's new, exclusive licence of Ladybird Clothing. The signature Ladybird Dressing Gown featured prominently on the cover and was given an elegant double-page centre spread. The new formula balanced up-market ranges with a strong value message. Price competiveness was reinforced by a coup in which the stores became the first to offer Budget Videos from £4.99. The range was launched under the slogan 'a video for the price of a blank tape'.
One of the best performing ranges under the new look was Entertainment. Performance was boosted by a dominant share of the sell-through video-market and of chart music sales. The stores sold one in three compilation albums and more singles than anyone else. The success spawned a number of marketing initiatives. The firm sponsored Smash Hits Magazine and distributed free copies in-store. They later published a house magazine called Tracks.
By 1990 the range account for one in four pounds spent at Woolworths. Videos alone generated over £200m turnover annually and got a 24 page catalogue of their own. The video and music publishers bought space in the magazines and helped to shape their content.
By 1991 (below) Christmas catalogues followed a regular pattern. They carried a mix of seasonal products, supplier promotional features and early-bird money-off coupons to encourage shoppers to spend early in the season, reducing the pressure in the seasonal peak. The idea was copied by competitors, including Boots, W.H. Smith and Argos.
After almost a decade of strong sales and profit, in 1993 and 1994 performance started to slip. This led to a boardroom shake-up and a re-evaluation of the trading formula. The soul-searching prompted initiatives to improve value in-store. Some prices were reduced and the merchandise mix was adjusted to redress a perception that the chain had moved too far up-market. The thinking was carried through to the pages of the catalogue. The 1994 and 1995 editions were distinctly different. In the first, copywriters focused on style, and appeared to consider prices to be too vulgar to menton. They ignored their popular own-brands like Chad Valley, Colourplay and Ladybird in favour of more expensive supplier-brands from Milton Bradley (Hasbro), Crayola and Forever Friends. The editorial included a feature on "how to dress your tree".
By the following year the tide had turned. A new marketing effort promoted the chain's price competiveness. It showed the value ranges and highlighted many items which had been reduced in price. The campaign also drew on customers' strong emotional attachment to the brand, introducing a catchy new slogan 'Woolies Winter Wonderland'.
By 1997 almost half of the products in the catalogue were exclusives and own-labels. The text included strong price statements like '£5 cheaper than last year' and 'Trees and Lights - our promise to you'. New coined words like 'Supervalue' also featured strongly. The steps achieved the desired result. Annual profits rose from £51.1m in 1994/5 to £84m in 1996/7, and a sparkling £107.6m in 1997/8.
There was also a more radical change, After a gap of over 20 years Woolworths explored mail order. In 1997 West Country customers were invited to order from the main Christmas Catalogue. The results were good. Months later every store distributed specialist order catalogues for the Spring season, followed by Summer and Back to School editions.
By Christmas 1998 the catalogue had grown to 132 pages. It offered the range from the largest branches, supplemented by a larger toys, bicycles, hi-fis and televisions. Orders were taken by a telephone call centre, or by post. The offer was marketed as 'Wonderland delivered to your door'. Surprisingly the Internet was considered off-limits, and a traditional non-ordering catalogue was also distributed in-store.
During 1999, as part of a wider Kingfisher Group initiative, the mail order offer was extended. A specialist outsource partner was chosen. Freemans plc helped set up a fulfilment centre in Braunstone, Leicester, and provided marketing expertise and systems. The Direct catalogue was enhanced but, for a second year, was distributed alongside a traditional version.
Just before the millennium, the launch of woolworths.co.uk was eclipsed by a salutary lesson in the problems of mail order, as things went wrong. Too many orders were received. This led to supply problems and created a backlog of postal orders paid for by cheque. The delay was criticised by BBC tv's influential Watchdog programme. A major clean-up operation was required to put things right.
Changes were made to the offer in 2000. The Store and Direct catalogues were merged to reduced customer confusion and operating costs. Instead of mailing the thick books to previous purchasers, a condensed 'teaser' was produced, encouraging people to collect the full catalogue in-store or shop on-line.
The firm opted to sharpen the payment process for mail order, controversially deciding to continue to accept payments by cheque. Executives were relieved that sales remained buoyant. It seemed that customers were forgiving. Many who had been let down the previous year returned to order again. Two in five placed repeat orders by post, with a further 20% going on-line.
Behind the scenes the failure of a planned 'merger of value champions' between the Kingfisher parent and the Asda supermarket chain prompted a radical re-think. Ultimately Kingfisher withdrew from the High Street. Superdrug was sold privately. The remaining companies were hived off into a new Group comprising Woolworths, MVC, Entertainment UK, Streets On Line and VCI Group. Woolworths Group plc floated on the London Stock Exchange at the beginning of August 2001. It had hired the controversial former Railtrack Supremo Gerald Corbett as its first Chairman.
One of Corbett's first observations was that the work on mail order and Multi-Channel Retail was heavily loss-making. He decided it should be closed without delay. Immediately after the demerger he reserved £10m for restructuring. The relationship with Freemans was terminated, the fulfilment and call centres were closed and 200 staff were laid off. At the eleventh hour the website was given a reprieve with an entertainment-only offer. The Internet specialists at the new Group's Streets on Line subsidiary redeployed the platform to build a single website which served both Woolworths and the specialist music and video retail chain MVC.
By Christmas 2001, less than six months after the Demerger, the experience of the previous four years had been obliterated and, once again, Woolworths had a conventional 108-page Christmas catalogue as a promotional aid for the stores. Although there was no longer an ordering service, a telephone helpline promised help customers to locate featured items in-store. The catalogue promised 'Everything you want and all you need for a magical Christmas with Woolworths'.
The appointment of a new CEO, Trevor Bish-Jones, in 2002 heralded a new strategy, which he called 'Kids and Celebrations'.
To emphasize the change the catalogues were restyled to a new 'handbag size', as illustrated.
Once again the catalogues showcased the firm's more expensive products. The pages were dominated by toys and clothes, supplemented by luxury kitchenwares and a range of home adornment lines.
Customers picking up a copy of the new catalogue might have been forgiven for thinking they were looking at the product range from Selfridges or Habitat.
The range was well designed and, while keenly priced, was a far cry from the traditional value selection.
The change was heralded by a jumbo A4 catalogue called the 'Big Red Book'. It had 6,000 products which could be ordered on-line, or through a new in-store ordering system at every till, as well as by 'phone.
Despite more modern photography and a slightly larger range, the books closely resembled those produced Shoppers World from 1975-82, with a hint of Woolworths Direct from 1997-2001. Both had ended acrimoniously with write-offs of many millions of pounds.
The new catalogues received a good press, with the in-store ordering system winning a coveted award as the world's best customer-facing solution in Chicago in 2006. Sales built progressively to £80m a year. But the success was only skin-deep. Orders that shipped directly from the supplier, including Music and Video from the Group's own Entertainment UK, were generally profitable, but the firm lost an average of £5 on every other order. Bish-Jones persevered with the strategy until 2008. Soon after the CEO was ousted, the Board announced that the Autumn 2008 Big Red Book would be their last. Days after the final catalogue hit the shelves the firm collapsed into Administration. By October 2008 the fulfilment operation had been suspended and the store chain had stopped taking orders on-line.
It could be argued that the Big Red Book and the work on Multi-Channel Retailing are the main reason that the Woolworths name survives and prospers in the United Kingdom today. They demonstrated the brand's on-line potential, which may have influenced Shop Direct Group to step in. Certainly e-tailers have much lower overhead costs than traditional bricks and mortar stores. Shop Direct Group has an unrivalled track record for building on-line brands and making the business model work. Today the 'Catalogue' lives and breathes on the screen, updated with real-time stock information, and with a choice of payment options and a wide selection of Toys, Gifts, Entertainment and more. And who knows, maybe one day the new owners or a franchisee will chance their arm in the High Street or head back into print.