Do you love a good Target run? The bright, poppy-red branding throughout the store, the practicality of picking up a few groceries, a prescription, a birthday card…while doing some indulgent browsing of clothing, shoes, home décor? Come to think of it, you do need a new non-stick pan, windshield washer fluid, peanut butter, and a yoga mat.
We are accustomed today to being able to purchase this variety of merchandise from one retailer. And we are also accustomed to the criticisms that big companies like Target, Amazon, and Wal-Mart have put smaller mom-and-pop stores out of business. But if we were to trace this model of consumer spending to its roots, you would meet Frank Winfield Woolworth, the grandfather of the five-and-dime store. This one-stop-shopping trend in retail, and the cries that it was harming smaller businesses, can be seen in the nineteenth century.
In 1879, after experiencing the success of what were called “nickel stores” in Michigan and New York, Frank Winfield Woolworth opened the Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The five-and-dime was the first store model to entice shoppers away from smaller, local merchants with the incentive of getting more things in one place, and at a lower price. These stores, also referred to as five-and-ten stores, dimestores, and variety stores, sold general merchandise in one place – dry goods, clothing, toys, hardware, and more. The products for sale were acquired by the seller in large quantities and offered to the public at discounted, fixed prices, beginning with the namesake five- and ten-cent price points (also called five-and-dimes), but later expanding to twenty-cent and one-dollar (enter The Dollar Store).
With the success of this store model, Frank Woolworth expanded the concept and invited family and former coworkers to open their own such stores in a “friendly rivalry,” with his company supplying all the merchandise – effectively becoming a retail chain. This was an era of a growing trend toward the concept of merchandising, which was marked by products being offered on a sales floor for shoppers to view, handle, and consider, instead of requiring the assistance of a salesclerk to supply requested products from behind a counter. This also kicked off the trend in creative and attractive displays of items for purchase and eye-pleasing packaging. As the scope and scale of available merchandise grew, so did the size of the stores, which brought about the need for the thoughtful layout of products and displays, as well as navigational signage to help shoppers find their way through the store’s offerings. As these practices further developed, a store’s merchandise was further organized into distinct categories, or departments, of merchandise.
It was during this period of initial growth of Frank Woolworth’s vision that the original Richmond store opened in 1891 at 413 East Broad Street. The number of such stores in the United States hit 596 by 1912, at which point the stores were incorporated under the name F. W. Woolworth Company. Frank Woolworth’s profits skyrocketed, enabling him to pay cash for the commission of what was then the tallest building in the world: the Woolworth Building in New York City, erected in 1913. In 1919, at the age of 66, Frank Woolworth died suddenly from an untreated tooth infection. His New York Times obituary noted that ‘he made his money not by selling a little for a lot, but by selling a lot for a little.’ His empire of stores had grown to 1,200 strong at the time of his death — and would posthumously grow to 3,000 at the company’s peak. This included the expansion to Mexico, England, Germany, and Austria. Cost-limiting at Woolworth stores was eliminated in 1935, but at least in the United States, Woolworth stores were referred to as “the five and ten” for several more decades.
Woolworth’s stores made headlines on February 1, 1960, when four Black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat at the Woolworth lunch counter to protest the whites-only policy. The following day, 20 students returned and did the same. The movement grew and similar sit-ins began happening across the South, and some customers began boycotting the store in support of the protesters. In Richmond, students from Virginia Union University attempted a sit-in at the Broad Street Woolworth’s on February 20th, but the counters were promptly closed. On February 22, they staged a sit-in at Thalhimer’s, just down the street, leading to the arrest of 34 peaceful protestors, who later became known as the Richmond 34. In Greensboro, where the movement began, the community kept the peaceful demonstrations up for months, and the store finally desegregated the lunch counters on July 25, 1960. The persistent and organized push for integration caused the lunch counter to become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, and the site of the original Greensboro Woolworth’s store is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
The decline of F. W. Woolworth & Co. began in the 1960s, partly due to the protests and boycotts, but also because of new competitors. The first Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target stores all opened in the 1960s. The short-lived Woolco marked the company’s attempt to meet this new model of low prices and convenience. One was opened briefly at the Azalea Mall in Richmond in 1962, but this store concept failed to revive the company’s profits and was closed. Profits continued to decline through the 1980s, despite the growth of the sporting goods division. The last of the Woolworth’s stores closed in the 1990s and the business was renamed Venator Group, shifting focus to the sportswear retailers which included Foot Locker, Kinney Shoe Corporation, Champs Sports, and Eastbay. In 2001, the company renamed itself Foot Locker, Inc. which continues to be in business today.
Retail trends continue to change as stores add new features, product lines, services, and commodities. Longstanding businesses close and others manage to find new ways to stay afloat. Just recently, major retailer Bed Bath and Beyond announced it is closing its doors, while Barnes and Noble reports an increase in sales and plans for new stores, having shifted — somewhat ironically — to a model that operates more like an independent local bookseller. Renovations and redesigns continue to change the consumer’s experience of stores, all in the name of creating happy shoppers that drive up profits for the retailer. The Library of Virginia’s collection of photographs of Richmond’s mid-century F. W. Woolworth Company allows us to travel back to a time when some of these ideas were still new and fresh. How would this clumsily stacked display of lawn chairs be presented to shoppers today?
If you are interested in learning more about Foster Studio, the Richmond photography studio that took all the images used in this blog post, be sure to check out this previous Uncommonwealth blog post.
Brough, James. The Woolworths. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Print.
Winkler, John Kennedy. Five and Ten; the Fabulous Life of F. W. Woolworth. New York: R. M. McBride & Company, 1940. Print.