A Century of Entertainment at Woolworths
Woolworth played an important role in bringing music and film into the price range of ordinary people. Bulk buying and mass production allowed helped drive down the price of everything from sheet music and gramophone records to pre-recorded videos and budget CDs.
In the early days, music was considered a bonus rather than a main part of the offer. The Company sold a small number of titles in depth from a national store base. It made money by keeping the range topical and by offering cheap alternatives to full price discs.
After 1970 'Entertainment' became an increasingly large contributor to annual profits. By 1990, a fifth of total turnover was from albums, cassettes and videos. Fifteen years later an enlarged publishing and wholesaling Division had a dominant share of the declining market and made the lion's share of Group profits. Today woolworths.co.uk still offers CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays, following a proud tradition that began 3,000 miles away, over a century ago.
Our Entertainment Gallery tells the story in words, pictures and sound. We have digitized over 100 tracks from a century in the High Street, which you can stream in our unique Juke Boxes or download for later.We hope it brings back some happy memories !
Frank Woolworth loved music, but couldn't play a note. Instead he bought himself an electric organ that played itself, complete with spectacular lighting and sound effects. He loved to create his very own lightening storm! He also built a successful music department in his Five-and-Ten Cent Stores. It sold sheet music of the latest hits of the day for five cents or up to six classics for the same price.
Before the gramaphone was invented, and with no radio, television, or electricity at home, many families had a piano in the parlour for a home sing-song.
Frank helped people to choose music with grand pianos in his largest stores. He hired wannabe stars to play and sing any song to order each weekend. The idea was a hit, particularly because each sheet sold for half the price charged at a specialist shop.
Woolworth's offered a no-frills service. The business model relied on selling a huge quantity of a small number of titles, and good discipline in-store to ensure that every sheet was sold, before its popularity tailed off.
In 1914 the chain went further, introducing gramophone records at the jaw-drop price of 10¢. The Little Wonder Records were the brainchild of Henry Waterson, who had started out with Columbia Records and had set up their studios on the ground-floor of the new Woolworth Building in New York.
Waterson had to tried get Columbia to adopt his idea for tiny single-sided five inch (7.5cm) records alongside their standard ten inch (25cm) $1 range. When they refused he engineered a 'chance encounter' with the Dime Store boss to float the idea. Woolworth quickly saw the potential. He offered to place large orders, on the proviso that the cost price was 7¢ or less.
The records were a winner. By 1915 Woolworth sold a million records a week through its 800 American and Canadian stores. Waterson added two new titles each week and struck gold with patriotic songs, particularly after America declared war on Germany in 1917.
Executives in New York expected that the rapidly-expanding British subsidiary would adopt the idea when the Atlantic shipping lanes reopened after World War I.. But, despite a successful fact-finding mission and enthusiasm from the Buying Office, the idea was vetoed by its MD, Fred Woolworth.
It seems that Fred believed the 'new fangled' discs were too risky. He told his Board that few Britons had 'a contraption'. After a lot of lobbying he authorised a small trial of a British equivalent label. The Little Marvel records went on sale in 1921, as a line in the 'Fancy Goods Department. Sales were good, but the MD remained unconvinced. He argued that a display of saucepans would make more money.
In 1923 William Stephenson took the helm after the tragic death of Fred Woolworth. The canny Yorkshireman decided that the best way to make records pay was to set two suppliers in competition. He signed both the Crystalate Recording Company and Vocalion.
'Little Marvel' records from Crystalate were an exclusive and carried the High Street chain's 'Diamond W' motif on the label, while 'Mimosa' was an established brand for Vocalion. Both offered double-sided 5½ inch (13cm) records of popular songs and instrumentals. Each was sold for sixpence, the equivalent of 2½p at the time or £2.11 today.
In 1927 the two suppliers surprised everyone by announcing plans to merge.. They intended to pool resources and invest in new electronic recording technology. The enlarged firm hoped to supply Woolworth with larger seven inch (17.5cm) records for the same cost price, and sell them under the name 'The Victory'. The deal was agreed. As predicted High Street shoppers appreciated the improved sound quality.
The merger created a potent combination. It was responsive to buying trends and was able to produce a steady stream of hits each week. It became an open secret that the 6d records, which did not show the singer's name, were often recorded by big stars, making some extra money while under contract to another label. For example there was no mistaking the voice of Al Jolson even if the label said the singer was 'R. Cliff'.
In 1931 continued success brought a new eight inch (20 cm) format with up to three minutes per side ('Eclipse') and then, in 1935, ten inch 'Crown' (25cm) discs of up to 4½ minutes a song. By working with Crystalate the store had a steady supply of the latest songs from stage and screen, as well as comedians and crooners from BBC Radio. As sales grew, the label attracted up-and-comers like Leslie Sarony, Donald Peers and Vera Lynn, As sales grew, these anonymous artists were given bylines of their own.
Many observers were surprised when the company announced in 1937 that, despite selling more than a million records a week, it would be dropping the range. The discs had fallen prey to a strict policy that nothing in the store was to be sold for over sixpence. Company bosses explained that price inflation had made it impossible to make a profit at that price. The range vanished for the next seventeen years.
Records returned in 1954. Tastes had changed. People wanted catchy tunes not dance bands, and made their favourite artists into stars. The store hired stars of their own, singing the same songs, released at the same time.
To this day Embassy Records remain controversial. The recording quality was superb, but they were cover versions, rather than the real thing. Some outsold the official version, and went on to launch the careers of singers like Maureen Evans. But others were were poor imitations.
Today the Beatles covers are highly collectable. One music magazine once judged Embassy's 'hit' as 'better than Beatles'. Many disagreed.
Embassy Records were withdrawn in 1964, when the firm behind the label,. Oriole sold out to CBS. The marque was later revived as a jazz label. The stores wanted to become a 'proper' record shop. Executives worked with a big name label, Decca Records, to create a new look which was tested in a store-of-the-future in Leicester's Gallowtree Gate. Before long new-look record departments were spreading across the Company.
During the 1970s the music offer evolved. Chart records were sold in every store, along with a big budget range, including exclusive labels. The cheap albums ranged from instrumentals to some unique, avante-garde covers of the latest hits. Superstores also sold musical instruments, from guitars to electric organs. It is said that Reg Dwight started out recording covers, before finding enduring fame as Elton John. Several Eighties stars claimed their first guitars or drums came from Woolies!
The change accelerated after the firm was acquired by Kingfisher in 1982. A new formula included a strong family entertainment shop, which offered low prices on chart, catalogue and budget LPs and Tapes. The stores created a new market for Pre-Recorded Video in 1984. When the range launched, its £6.99 price was a quarter of the level elsewhere. The stores went on to dominate the market for the next twenty years.
In the 1987 Kingfiaher took control of Record Merchandisers, Woolworths' main music and video supplier They invested in improved systems and facilities, and renamed it Entertainment UK Ltd. Before long 'EUK' was Europe's largest music and video product wholesaler. Its expertise and buying power drove the rapid expansion of the stores' market share. By 1990 one in four albums in the UK came from Woolworths.
Kingfisher also explored niche markets. It acquired Titles Video Ltd and the Music and Video Club, creating MVC. In 1999 the Group moved into the publishing world, buying VCI Group Ltd. This included a major catalogue of music and video, including the MCI, Crimson, Demon and Emporio labels.
After Woolworths demerged from Kingfisher in 2001 the Wholesale and Publishing Division played in increasingly important role in the well-being of the Group, particularly after the sale and subsequent failure of MVC.
The Division supplied many other retailers, mirroring the growth of its largest third-party, Tesco. When the supermarket announced plans to go it alone, a major drive signed new customers including Asda, W.H. Smith and Zavvi (aka Virgin Megastores). Total Home Entertainment was purchased for cash, in a move to secure its contract to supply Sainsbury's. The Group also paid cash for the leading book wholesaler Bertrams Books Ltd.
VCI grew rapidly thanks to a joint venture with BBC Worldwide. Profits from 2|Entertain bought time to perfect a new formula for the High Street. But it also changed the working capital needs, extending credit to other retailers. The Group secured financing from a consortium of banks using the rare Asset-Based Lending model. Weeks later fears rose that Zavvi might be insolvent, amplified by the sudden departure of the Woolworths CEO and a new business plan from his successor. This angered the bankers, who pulled the plug rather than provide more cash for peak trading in 2008.
In-store the launch of budget CDs on the WorthIt! label in 2008 saw sales rocket. Some 40 track original artist discs sold for 99p. Had the stores put prices up with inflation after launching sixpenny records in 1923, forty songs would have been sold for £84.40!
Some observers consider the failure of both Woolworths and Zavvi marked a natural thinning of Entertainment capacity in the High Street as music and video went digital, amplified by the rise of the supermarkets. This may be true, but actually the High Street chain sold more albums and videos in 2008 than it had ever done before, albeit at much lower prices than in earlier years. After the collapse, Shop Direct Group bought the brand and have taken it on-line. Today they offer an extensive range of CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays as well as software and consoles for home delivery. But Saturday afternoon shopping will never be quite the same again, for five generations used to being able to buy music in a Woolworths store at the heart of town.
We hope that our music and video feature in the Woolworths Museum brings back some happy memories - but don't forget to visit the new Woolworths.co.uk to buy something when you've finished looking - it's a tradition that has already sustained the British brand for over a hundred years. Now that's what we call music.
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