Music on a Budget in the 1970s
During the 1970s F.W. Woolworth built a substantial music business after deciding to move away from own label budget records to mainstream music. Over the decade the company established a strong share of the chart singles market and particularly strong sales of compilation chart albums and cassettes.
The firm hired expertise from Record Merchandisers Ltd., a music wholesaler that had established a niche in helping non-specialist retailers to sell albums. The supplier's representatives trained store staff and took responsibility for placing opening orders and uplifting surplus stock from each branch. The two companies worked together to build the business, experimenting with price cuts to attract young customers with limited disposable income, and determining the correct product selection to suit different types of store and each of the areas of the country.
They enjoyed particular success with budget lines, Irish and Scottish Music and Instrumentals, as well as the mainstream charts. They also helped the Woolworth Buyers to build a range of best selling blank tapes, record cases and storage accessories, which helped to keep the firm's margin up, despite highly competitive prices.
During the 1970s a large Woolworth branch offered as many as ten different budget music labels. They also matched the specialists with 'mid-price' deals on ex-chart albums. Many customers became devout followers of the labels, choosing the one that best suited their taste. Hallmark, Camden, Contour, Pickwick and Marble Arch are all fondly remembered, alongside the two market leaders - EMI's Music for Pleasure (MFP) and Classics For Pleasure (CFP) labels. Few customers knew that many of the labels came from the same supplier and were merchandised by the same direct store calling representatives in-store. For example:
Of all of these ranges, only Chevron was a Woolworth exclusive - offering low entry price point titles, some by the original artists, backed by cover versions by 'Parade of Pops' often sold on brightly coloured red or yellow vinyl, artist and personality records - like the very popular Henry Cooper Knockout Party - and a strong range of classical by leading British Orchestras like Manchester's Hallé. There are examples of some of the variety on the Chevron label - both good and bad - in our Juke Box Feature.
The labels built up a strong following, with some customers collecting all of the titles released by Ronco, K-Tel or Warwick. They were great value, particularly if the variety of artists and tracks appealed. Woolworth sold such large quantities that they were able to offer added value like three-for-two during the low season (to clear down stocks) and special discounts at peak Christmas trading. Whichever vendors offered the best deals for the customer (and the best margins for the company) got the prime space in-store, often backed by signage to help the customer to link the display back to the television advertising.
Some of the advertising, particularly in the chain's catalogues and magazines seemed to be geared as much to persuading company bosses to give the vendor the best space as to getting the customer to buy. For example K-Tel, which offered a superb range - much of it developed for the US Market and extensively advertised on TV - branded their Woolworth print advertising "Top of the Shop" rather than 'the best artists', songs or even price.
These albums were sold in very large quanties, both to teens and twenties and particularly as gifts for Christmas and birthdays. Top titles sold up to a million copies in December and helped to build a leading market share for Woolworth by the end of the decade.
Pickwick built a strong library of all-time favourite artists, licencing the library from RCA and working with Disney to develop soundtracks and sing-along albums. They relied on store signage and bright, modern spin-racks to sell their product with much less money spent on television advertising and marketing. As a result they were able to offer a wide catalogue of titles at just £1.35 in 1978, less than half the price of the television advertised titles of other vendors.
Pickwick enjoyed particular success with a re-release of Elvis Presley albums after his untimely death. In recent times it has become established practice to put CDs back up in such circumstances, but at the time Pickwick held the price at £1.35 until its RCA licence expired.
Jim Reeves and Des O'Connor proved popular with the Woolworth demographic and became best sellers for Pickwick in the late Seventies. In 1979 it seemed that everybody needed Sir Harry Secombe, after he fronted the Christmas wall-to-wall television advertising extravaganza 'everybody needs Woolworth'.
Pickwick's great rival in-store was Music for Pleasure (MFP), and the sister label Classics for Pleasure. Backed by the unrivalled catalogue of EMI, MFP offered a huge variety from The Beatles and Tom Jones, to good comedy kids titles. Also sold from spin-racks, Store Managers often noted that Pickwick representatives 'tidied' the MFP displays to bring the less exciting titles to the front of the rack! Pickwick always tried to pitch their price a few pence below MFP, and made a point of getting to know the Woolworth store managers, offering extra visits and special deals like free-draws in exchange for more spin-racks or better locations in-store.
To compete, representatives from Multiple Sounds Distributors, who supplied records on the Warwick Label as well as Tempo Storybook Tapes and Chevron, carried car stocks of signs that could be made up to suit browser-based locations, and a never-ending variety of free offers to tempt the customers. Store Managers often favoured Multiple Sounds because of the ample supply of freebies. MSD never quite explained what made a round piece of felt into an anti-static mat, but customers loved them all the same. The display on the left, pictured in the Oxford Street, London, W1 branch, racked up sales of more than 1,000 albums in its first week in August 1979.
The Warwick Albums were contemporary and sometimes offered a cheap way of buying titles that were still in the British singles chart. Many were themed, for example love songs, number ones or Disco Gold. A similar concept later emerged in a series of more expensive CDs with titles like "The Best Seventies Album in the World Ever" and in budget compilations offered as part of a WorthIt! range of CDs from 2008.
The Seventies saw a big expansion of the Music Range. It was was value-led and It had something for everyone. A 20 track album cost 75p to £5.
Officianados soon learnt that the cheaper albums had the oldest tracks, one-hit wonders, or were by unknown artists!
Test out the good, the bad and the ugly in our Virtual Museum 70s Juke Box feature
You may need ear plugs!
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