The Woolworths Museum


The Syndicate masters America's big cities

Initially Frank Woolworth had hoped to open 5 & 10¢ Stores in cities, but each time he had tried, he had failed. All of his most successful branches were in rural areas and small towns. As his Buying Syndicate grew in confidence, members repeatedly took the plunge in cities, hoping that the growing popularity of the five-and-ten would carry the day. The publicity machine put out stories of success, with press releases stating new openings were 'our largest ever' or had recorded 'our highest ever opening day sales'. For example in 1891 Frank Woolworth gave interviews about his huge, new store in Rochester, New York, declaring that its first week was the best ever, with $5,217 passing through the tills. The bravado glossed over the fact that annual rental alone was $20,000, and that he had been forced to pay extra wages to attract the right clerks. The store would have to match its first week's volume every week to match the profits generated by its country cousins.

 

S.H. Knox & Co. 5 and 10 Cent Store in Detroit, Michigan, 1897 and (inset) 1895.

In 1895 Seymour Knox proved a better way at a new store in Detriot, Michigan. He invested in a much smarter shopfit, creating a department store look He used wider aisles, improved fixtures, brighter lighting and more attentive service. He extended the displays of items that he believed would suit city dwellers, trimming the more rural lines. He included plenty of five cent items, ordering his manager not to overdo the 10¢ selection. The re-think worked; sales were far higher from day one.

Within two years the small Detroit branch had expanded to take over the whole city block, and was still crowded throughout the day. Knox's publication Views of Detroit and Vicinity described his 5 & 10¢ as "the most favorite spot in Detroit". What's more he had the sales to prove it!

The next major Knox store in State Street, Chicago also excelled, prompting another superstore across the border at Queen and Young Street, Toronto. Seymour shared news of his success with the Syndicate. They eagerly adopted his ideas. Charlton responded with spectacular openings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. Frank Woolworth made major styling changes in 1895. The branch in Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY adopted all of Knox's ideas when in opened on 16 November. It was radically different from the Woolworth's in Washington, DC which had opened just three months earlier.

 

Sumner Woolworth applied the upgrade to all of his stores, large and small. His approach to the 5 & 10¢ business was very different from brother Frank. He chose quality over quantity, generating much higher sales and profit per foot in every store rather than dashing to open as many branches as possible. Each outlet was carefully crafted, and looked resplendent in the finest mahogany, with brightly polished floors and windows. Fred Kirby was also more cautious, preferring to see the others bed in the formula while continuing to open smaller branches. When he was ready, he tested a revised layout in Fall River when he relocated his flagship to South Main Street in 1908 and perfected it in his iconic 5 & 10¢ in Canal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, when it opened in 1910. It was one of the finest in the Syndicate, and is fondly remembered to this day.

 

The Interior of the first Woolworth store in New York City in 1897, as recreated in the Museum of the City of New YorkFrank's stores in Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City were a far cry from his first ramshackle displays in 1879. They had fine mahogany counters and showcases, bright electric lighting and a glass tube payment system that raced payments to the office and returned receipts at lightening speed.

In 1917 the 1000th store was his most radical, Snubbing convention, he pitched a 5 & 10¢ in Fifth Avenue, New York. It was constructed in marble and portland stone, had escalators and smart lifts, three restaurants and even a reading room, aping Selfridges in London. And not one item on its four floors was over ten cents!

 

 

City centre stores of the Woolworth Dimestore syndicate: F. M. Kirby & Co. in New Orleans, Woolworth stores in Washington DC and Utica NY