Woolworth builds its fashion range : 1950-1980
By 1940 wartime inflation had made the Woolworth 'Nothing over Sixpence' policy untenable. The Board reluctantly gave in to the inevitable and started to reinvent the brand. Fashion was identified as a key area of growt potential after the price constraint was removed.
Throughout the 1940s clothing was rationed. The measure was intended to spread stocks fairly. Supplies were limited because many clothing factories had switched to manufacturing uniforms, while others had been asked to re-tool to make munitions or parts for tanks and aeroplanes.
Everybody was issued with a ration book. To buy a rationed item people had to pay with oneor more coupons which the shop cut from the book, as well as cash. Strict rules governed the sale of fashions, which were classified into lots of types based on their purpose and the material used to make them. There was a different coupon and ration for each type.
Having coupons was no guarantee that an item would be available. Customers had to shop around. Rationing continued long after the war. Initially factories made 'demob' (demobilisation) suits for returning servicemen. Later there was an export drive, which aimed to raise foreign exchange to pay off war debts.
As rationing eased in the early 1950s, the Woolworth management was keen to develop the fashion range. The goal was to make modern clothing available to ordinary people at affordable prices. By 1953 the Buyers had built a wide selection of everyday wear. The larger stores stocked lots of woollen jumpers, blouses and shirts as well as school and casual clothes for children. The smaller branches stocked a more limited range, picking the best sellers. Every branch carried underwear and hosiery for all the family.
As new stores were opened and older ones were modernised, they were fitted with compact hanging displays for kidswear which looked very modern. This style of display was new to the British retail scene, and was an example of the High Street chain exploiting design ideas from its American parent company.
By chance government rules favoured Woolworth. Rival retailers like Marks and Spencer were severely constrained by rules that restricted the amount that they could import. But because the restrictions limited the number of garments imported to pre-war levels rather than the value of the imports, Woolworth was able to switch from the sixpenny knickers and socks of the Thirties to much more expensive dresses, jumpers and coats.
With stifled competition and plenty of new product ideas, sales rocketed ! Woolworths enjoyed a golden era in the Fifties, rapidly opening 300 stores and taking the firm's shares right to the top of the Stock Market, second only to the chemical giant ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries).
By 1960s the British economy was back on its feet. There was much much more competition.
Woolworth was forced to cut prices. To maintain margins they started to buy some fashions ovverseas. They also cut product quality on some own-label Winfield items,
After a decade when Woolworth had appeared unbeatable, it mis-read the market. Customers had become more discerning. Some described the overseas Winfield lines as 'shoddy'. If the chain was to succeed as a clothing brand, it would need to stop treating clothing as a commodity like a dish-mop, and start making garments that were nicer to wear and more aspirational.
Instead, in response to demand for brighter colours and more fashionable clothing, the Buyers embraced new man-made materials. Wool and cotton imports were replaced with locally-made nylon and courtelle fabrics. The new selection was showcased in a new-look store at Gallowtree Gate in Leicester in the Autumn of 1965. Virtually every colour of the rainbow was represented in a single sixty foot (18m) personal service counter!
More was to follow as plans were laid to open the firm's first out-of-town superstore - a Woolco - at Oadby nearby. This would see a quadrupling of the size of the fashion range stocked by the Company.
The thinking behind Woolco was born out of the F. W. Woolworth American parent company's purchase of the fashion giant Richman Brothers in 1962, and followed successful trials in Columbus, Ohio and a rapid roll-out on the other side of the Atlantic. While British bosses were sceptical about the potential of out-of-town shopping, it was soon clear that the new format was a hit with customers and that the fashion ranges offered the scope for higher margins and bigger overall customer purchases. Before long (as illustrated above), Woolco was stocking a large range of men's suits, alongside ladies dresses and a full childrenswear range.
Scepticism among the top British management about out-of-town meant that for every Woolco opening, several City Centre Woolworth stores were extended and enlarged, allowing the firm to stock much of the Woolco range in the largest High Streets. For example the store in Ipswich, Suffolk was quadrupled in size to a remarkable 120,000 square feet (11,148m2), making it rather larger than a Woolco and able to carry the firm's full section of goods.
By 1969 every Woolworth store had a fashion department. In the smaller branches the range was limited to underwear, hosiery, nightwear and occasional special offers. The larger High Street stores had outerwear for men, women and children. The quality varied widely from one garment to another. A growing chain of Woolco out-of-town stores offered a more comprehensive selection, which was generally better made. At the time supermarkets sold groceries in the town-centre. Only Tesco had started to experiment with a few fashions as part of their Home and Wear selection.
Despite their best endeavours, the Woolworth Buyers struggled to match Marks and Spencer's reputation for fashionable, well-made British clothes, opting for much cheaper lines, many of them imported from Hong Kong and Eastern Europe. A 1970 business review highlighted the shortcomings and prompted a determined effort to improve the fashion range. For the first time outside talent was brought in to drive an improvement strategy, rather than relying on home-grown Buyers. The move and a barage of advertising did little to change the public's perception of the range.
Dedicated followers of fashion (probably shopped somewhere else!)
Despite a big push in the 1970s, with very high inflation and little capital to invest, Woolworth struggled to change the public's perception of its fashions. The small Woolco chain far outperformed the High Street, but struggled to grow. Identical products sold well out-of-town but badly in City Centres, perhaps because of the better shopping environment. The range seemed better suited to a department store than a traditional 'squeeze-it-all-in' variety format..
Sadly some of the better selling products only served to emphasize the down-market image of the clothing range. Every Christmas from 1975 to 1980 the top sellers were ladies simulated leopardskin and fur coats for £4.99. These were nicknamed 'the Bet Lynch' by staff.
The greatest success was in back-to-school. Gradually M&S, British Home Stores, Littlewoods and F.W. Woolworth took the place of traditional school outfitters. Each offered uniforms at much lower prices. Woolworth lured shoppers with a one-stop solution that also included budget stationery, lunchboxes and sports goods.
The legendary TV advertising campaign, the Wonder of Woolworth, which aired from 1975 to 1979, regularly featured clothing. Pop sensations The Nolans even did a dance on the clothing counters, while Georgie Fame, Sir Jimmy Young and Sir Harry Secombe all gave their own take on the products.
The campaign attracted many customers through the doors and boosted clothing sales, but did little to address customers' perception of poor quality, despite a sustained effort to improve. Somehow Woolworth never managed to achieve the balance between price and quality on their adult clothing that later brought success to Matalan, T.K. Maxx and Primark.
A further influx of expertise from outside the business brought a new fashion campaign in 1980, with a rash of advertisements in colour magazines under the banner 'Oh Woolworth how you've changed'. The aspirational message was in marked contrast to the down-market feel of many of the stores.
Editorials in The Observer and The Sunday Times fashion magazines compared Woolworth fashions for pennies with the branded alternatives and highlighted somestrengths. But, after years of disappointment, customers were unconvinced. The Board seemed happy to wait it out and to let the advertising agency sprinkle their magic to boost sales.
Work on the re-launch was brought to an abrupt halt after the business was taken over in 1982. The new owners concluded the Fashion Strategy was not working. Rather than being a jack-of-all-trades they resolved to focus on establishing a comprehensive, high quality selection for children.
Executives put on a brave face for advertising campaigns in 1983 and 1984, as they sold through the adult fashion lines that had already been ordered. The stores sold a further 100,000 simulated £4.99 over Christmas 1984. As Adult Clothing sold out, the space was given to bigger displays of Ladybird Clothing and a larger toy range.
Several of the new joiners from 1980 actually drove the Ladybird revolution at Woolworths, with some remaining with the business until the bitter end in January 2009.
It would be fifteen years before adult clothing from Peacocks made a last gasp appearance in a handful of High Street and out-of-town stores at Big W, shortly before the chain's demerger from Kingfisher.
Ladybird and Woolworths are now brands of Shop Direct Group. All trademarks are acknowledged.
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