A Century of Thrift: The Woolworth Home Economy Department
What do you do when something wears out or gets broken? Perhaps you throw it away and buy another, or maybe you let your fingers do the walking and call someone in to fix it. But more than 130 years ago Frank Woolworth worked out that there was another way - to repair the item yourself, saving money and avoiding waste. From his first day's trading he determined to offer the tools and spares that people would need to 'make do and mend', building a reputation as the 'knick knack shop' with hard-to-find items that you couldn't find anywhere else. Despite many changes over a century of trading in the High Street, these items remained a mainstay of the Woolies range for five generations, surviving the challenges of world wars, the rise of the Internet and the growth of out-of-town DIY stores and supermarkets.
Among the 'make do and mend' ranges in Woolies stores were:
On this page we take a look at some of these ranges and how they developed over a hundred years in the High Street.
Our story begins on the evening of Friday 21 February 1879, as Frank Woolworth prepared to open his 'Great Five Cent Store' in Bleecker Street, Utica, New York. A customer knocked on the door,and asked if he could buy a dustpan.The proprietor sold the pan he was using to clean up, losing 20¢ on the transaction. He recognised the demand and went on to stock hardware and tools. This became one of the most popular ranges. Modern equivalents of the lines Frank chose were still sold in the British stores until November 2008, 129 years later!
When Woolworth opened in Britain, they built on the success of the Stateside Home Economy Department. With 500 stores, the Syndicate had built a range of practical everyday items. British Buyers had to find local sources for similar items, and were able to sell them even more cheaply.
The 'Notions' counter in Liverpool, featured more than 500 lines, and proved a hit. By 1912, (right), the renamed Home Economy Dept had been promoted to the front of the branch in Croydon, Surrey.
Tins of paint, brushes and tools were the best sellers.
Alongside the home repair products, Woolies also sold a wide selection of items to make and repair your own clothes, including wool, needles and paper patterns, which are featured in our Clothes Gallery.
The Meltonian brand of shoe polish and whitener (for trainers), stayed in the range all the way from 1909 to 2003!
Industry developed stronger glue and more pliable and durable rubber to support the war effort between 1914-18. As soon as the fighting was over Woolworth found an imaginative, and less destructive, use for the technology, launching a shoe repair department. The rubber soles and heels were initially called 'Shell Shoes', as featured in the window of the new Ramsgate, Kent store in 1918. It stocked eighteen different styles to fit the most popular shoe sizes for all the family. A stick-on-sole pack, including the sole, glue and a knife was just sixpence.
Thrifty customers were quick to embrace the idea of repairing their own shoes instead of replacing them or paying much more for a cobbler to repair them. Soon the stores added a display of shoelaces, as well as heel grips, blakeys (metal pins on the soles to keep them from wearing out) and lining inner soles, more commonly known as insoles today. The Toiletries Department (nicknamed "The Toilet") completed the range with footpowder and heel balm.
By the 1930s there were more than 500 stores, with branches in High Streets across the UK and Irish Free State. This gave the firm huge buying power and made it possible to offer a comprehensive range of hardware and tools at prices everyone could afford. As the selection of tools in the Home Economy Department grew, it was given a grandiose name of its own. Signs promoted the selection of 'Carpenters and Engineers Tools' (later changed to "Cabinet Makers' and Builders' Hardware"). The stores' hammers, saws and chisels appealed to tradespeople as well home craftsmen. The picture below, taken for the company by the legendary architectural photographer Stewart Bale, shows an elaborate window display of tools at the London Road, Liverpool store in around 1930.
During World War II, with most industrial production turned over to armaments, there was a severe shortage of new products. Instead the government promoted 'make do and mend'. Woolworth was perfectly placed to capitalise on the campaign. Rapid price inflation forced the firm to abandon its sixpenny upper price limit in 1940. The first item to exceed the maximum was a pair of rubber soles. Raw material prices continued to rise throughout the 1940s, meaning that by 1950 a number of products were on sale in the stores for five shillings (25p, a ten-fold rise over a decade). Higher prices gave the firm's buyers more room to manoeuvre, allowing them to extend the range of tools and hardware still further.
Larger traditional displays like the one at Pontypool (pictured above, with special thanks to Reg and Ray Gallanders) were just the start. As new superstores rose from the ashes of those destroyed in the Blitz, company bosses experimented with something more spectacular - a comprehensive 'do it yourself' shop, long before this was fashionable. This was geared to increasingly aspirational shoppers, who wanted to improve their homes and living conditions as the country returned to prosperity. Many people were no longer prepared to put up with the squalor and discomfort of earlier years. When the Coventry, Warwickshire store re-opened in the new Broadgate Shopping Centre, it was very different from the branch that had been blitzed in Smithford Street. The sales area was much larger and included a number of experimental ranges. In the Thirties the store had stocked just white and magnolia 'distemper' - an oil-based paint for walls, ceiling and wallpapers. Its replacement offered both emulsion and gloss paint in a full range of colours, along with the latest craze - polystyrene tiles, which were considered the height of fashion.
The new ranges proved popular with the public and were soon extended across the store base. During the 1950s the Buyer worked with the long-serving supplier Donald Macpherson and Company to build an exclusive own-brand paint offer. The 'Household' own-brand paint soon became UK market leader, thanks to a strong press advertising campaign and bold signage in-store. In the 1970s 'Household' was renamed 'Winfield Cover Plus', maintaining a measure of exclusivity while lining up with the wider Woolworths own-brand strategy.
The DIY range continued to expand, taking a larger proportion of the space in-store with the introduction of power tools in 1965, including a number of own-brand lines sold under the Winfield label, and upscale displays in the chain's new out-of-town Woolco stores from 1967. By the mid 1970s chain dominated the UK DIY market, and company executives started to consider opening standalone DIY stores.
In the late Seventies the Woolworth Chairman Geoffrey Rogers asked his property team to find sites for a new-start DIY chain. The search identified a fast-growing chain as a possible takeover target. Within weeks secret negotiations for a buy-out were underway with the founders of B&Q. The deal was completed in on 1 September 1980, as Woolworths agreed to pay a hefty premium to buy into the established business. The purchase was funded by the sale of a number of freehold Woolworth stores in Central London.
When Woolworth bought B&Q, its Founder, David Quayle, was invited to join the Board. His partner Richard Block had already left the business that carries his initial to this day.
Some people believe that it was the Board's purchase of B&Q that prompted the management buy-in to Woolworths by Paternoster Stores (later known as Kingfisher) in 1982. In a single step the Woolies Directors had revealed the break-up asset value of their freehold stores and had taken control of a rapidly expanding and highly attractive young business, with lots of growth potential.
In place of the upscale High Street DIY offer envisaged by the old management, the new owners decided to develop their new acquisitions separately. The High Street offer centred on 'home repair', with fewer tools and a more fashionable range of paints, brushes and interior decor for smaller jobs, leaving larger projects to B&Q out of town. Both companies' own label paint was made by Donald Macpherson, who had been a Woolworth supplier for a remarkable 75 years.
The new management maintained Woolworths' market leadership in shoe goods and haberdashery, as well as enhancing the range of bathroomware, curtain track and accessories. These high margin ranges became mainstays of the 'Operation Focus' rebranding, offering a competitively-priced, convenient solution in the High Street, without the need to go out of town.
During the 1990s, fearing that they had repositioned too far up-market, allowing room for cheaper rivals like Wilkinsons to prosper, there was a major drive to bring High Street prices down and to adapt the range to avoid duplicating the B&Q offer. The High Street concentrated on brushes, scrapers and small tins of paint for touch-up projects. Sales were maintained through strong sales promotions.
In 1999 Kingfisher developed plans for out-of-town superstores which would showcase all of their British retail brands, stocking general merchandise from Woolworths, electricals from Comet, DIY from B&Q and Toiletries and Cosmetics from Superdrug. It was agreed that the new look stores, called Big W, would be managed by Woolworths - giving the company access to B&Qs large range of DIY. Initial results were encouraging and plans were laid to open up to fifty of these stores, each turning over up to £½million per week. Sadly plans to add grocery to the range available by merging with Asda were confounded when the value supermarket opted to join Walmart instead, leaving Kingfisher's plans in tatters and ultimately resulting in the break-up of the group. Woolworths demerged in the Summer of 2001, with new leaders and a new radical strategy.
The new CEO, Trevor Bish-Jones, decided to pursue a 'Kids and Celebrations Strategy', aiming to concentrate on Ladybird Children's Clothing, Chad Valley and branded toys, 'fun learning', greetings cards and a large range of music and video. The long-term intention was to reduce and then eliminate the 'back departments', which would remove DIY and Home Maintenance altogether - an idea tested briefly in the Midland Road, Bedford store in 2006. The first stage was to scale the ranges back, while focusing on higher priced items that were suitable for gifts, including a wide selection of own-label power tools that could be cheaply made in China and the Far East. It also led to the shoe goods and haberdashery ranges being squeezed into a single four-foot bay in the majority of stores. Controversially, after a relationship spanning more than ninety years, the chain also dropped its Cover Plus own brand paint range from Donald Macpherson and switched to a well-known supplier brand. The decision to concentrate buying activity on 'Debbie', a mum and homebuilder, meant that the offer had less appeal to men and serious DIY enthusiasts, who abandonned the stores and headed for Wilkinsons and Robert Dyas, who were happy to serve them.
Ultimately the new strategy failed. The sales uplift and margins on the 'Kids and Celebrations' ranges were insufficient to make up for the shortfall from the space-reduction and lost traffic when the Home ranges were cut back. The last store closed its doors in January 2009. Weeks later Shop Direct Group stepped in to revitalise the brand as an on-line shop.
Shortcuts to related content in the Woolworths Museum
Home, Kitchen and Garden Gallery