Preparing for decimalisation "D-Day" on 15 February 1971
For more than five hundred years Great Britain's currency was based around twelves rather than tens. The 'duo-decimal' currency, consisted of pounds, shillings and pence. There were twelve pennies (abbreviated to "D" for Denarii, the Latin name for penny) in a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound, meaning that there were 240 old pennies in a pound.
Most other countries had currencies centred around tens - dollars and cents in the USA, francs and centimes in France - but Britain and its Empire worked in twelves. The old currency even got three mentions in the fascias of the early stores.
This heralded one of the most expensive changes that Woolworth's had faced in Britain. Unlike other retailers, it had not sought to mitigate the impact of decimalisation by converting to self-service.
When the change was announced, 1,000 out of 1,100 stores still had tills at every counter. There were 20,000 cash registers, operated by up to 60,000 members of staff. Estimates indicated that it would cost £200 to convert each till, and it would take at least three hours to train each employee.
This prompted a re-think, and led to an initiative to convert every store to self-service, and to complete as many as possible before 'D day'.
Self-service would tackle the number of registers and reduce the number of till operators, but left a problem with product pricing. More than 20,000 stamping machines had to be replaced. The chain chose a model which could show both the old and new prices, and dual-priced every item from August 1970. The retailer chose to dual price everything until August 1971.
In the final reckoning the decimalisation cost £5 million, taking into account the conversion of the cash registers, staff training and the establishment of a basic self-service operation in the stores.
At the time the chain turned over £320m and generated annual profits of £18m. After paying dividends of £13m, this left only £5m of discretionary capital expenditure each year. For four years from 1969 to 1973 virtually all other investment was placed on hold. The Board was also forced to face up to a longstanding issue and tackle their loss-making stores.
A root and branch review revealed that twenty-five stores were trading at a loss. Generally these were the original shops in large towns and cities that had been superceded by a more recent outlet closer to the main shopping area. They had been kept open for old time's sake, in support of a company adage that "only Mr Hitler had ever closed a British Woolworth store".
Executives concluded that it would be wrong to pour good money after bad into these stores, as additional capital expenditure would accentuate the losses. Instead they decided to sacrifice them, selling the freeholds to top up the reserves. A special effort was made to find alternative work for all those employees who wanted to transfer to another branch nearby.
By 'D' Day more than half of the 1,075 stores had converted to self-service. The number of cash registers in the remaining personal service stores was reduced to minimise the cost of decimalisation work. After the big day the pace of conversion was reduced, with 100 stores completed each year from 1971 to 1975. Overall the move to self-service took twenty years, starting in Chobham, Surrey in 1956 and finishing in Stone, Staffordshire in 1975.
Decimalisation consumed almost all of the available investment capital in the first half of the 1970s. In parallel a major fire at the national Distribution Centre in Castleton, Rochdale, hit sales and profits. Debt rose as the retailer stumbled and its competitors surged ahead. New initiatives would be required to restore sales and get the High Street giant back on track.
The actual conversion to decimal currency was flawless. The team behind the project won acclaim from the highest in the land, and went on to take up Board positions. The morning after 'D Day', on 16 February 1971, the front page of The Times carried a Woolworth story on its front page. A photograph showed Lord Fiske, the Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, making the first decimal purchase at the store in The Strand, WC2, alongside Administration Director J.C. Williams and Project Manager Peter Nicholls,(who had previously taken the brand to Jamaica). Lord Fiske commented "the girls certainly knew what they were doing!"
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