Leading lights - bulbs, shades and electrical at Woolworth's
This page tells the story of two 'leading lights' who changed the world:
Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852-1919) evangelised factory mass-production. His 5 & 10¢ stores was the first to buy directly from manufacturers, and offered a ground-breaking style of retailing that welcomed everyone, both rich and poor.
Thomas Alvar Edison (1847-1931) invented the gramophone, the incandescent light bulb, the world's first commercial power station and the electric train. He was the ultimate inventor's inventor.
Edison patented his first light bulb in the same year that Woolworth opened his first store. The dime stores were among the first to adopt electric lighting. The two men later collaborated on joint projects as the stores stocked Edison Lamps, and the skyscraping Woolworth Building became a showcase for technologies from Menlo Park.
Woolworth was intrigued when he heard that Edison had patented a light bulb. He had already seen arc lighting on his buying trips to England, and knew of the (Humphrey) Davey Lamp and Sir Joseph Wilson Swan's incandescent bulbs. But now an American had taken the lead, becoming the talk of New York.
Woolworth resolved to join the revolution. He made his sales floors brighter than the competition. The windows, which were always elaborately dressed, became silent salesmen after dark. Before long, each night the 5 & 10¢ offered a beacon of light in the Main Streets of North America.
By 1900, bright light shone from the windows of many Woolworth branches. The transformation at Lancaster was spectacular. It had been rebuilt as the city's first 'skyscraper' in 1905. Its spacious mahogany-clad salesfloor was brightly lit with 150 watt bulbs in glass dome shades.
While the British stores weren't skyscrapers, they also had electric lighting. This set them apart from the rest of the High Street.
The creativity of Edison's team at Menlo Park was legendary. So was their gift for marketing and promotion. One of the reasons that people believe that Edison invented the light bulb, despite the British scientist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan securing a patent for a filament bulb three years earlier, is because as the Edison Company's income rocketed, it was able to buy its best competitors and absorb their ideas.
Edison's flair for publicity was reflected in a series of campaigns with Woolworth's. The Founder loved gadgets and new technology. Edison's General Electric Company offered special discounts to the Five-and-Ten, in exchange for an endorsement. GEC placed full page advertisements in leading journals, showcasing Woolworth stores. These promoted the idea that 'good light' could be achieved by using patented Mazda Bulbs.
The win-win arrangement led to a much larger project. Hearing of Woolworth's plan to construct the world's tallest building , Edison offered to provide the light and power. Plans for the 792 foot skyscraper in Broadway Place, New York included many of Edison's innovations.
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Frank Woolworth hired the eminent architect Cass Gilbert. He sent him to London to study the British Houses of Parliament, which he believed reflected the ultimate in style and taste. The building was to tower 792 feet above the sidewalk, with foundations drilled down to 121 feet below ground. There were to be fifty-five floors above ground, with a viewing platform at the top. It would also include two underground floors, a basement and sub-basement.
Woolworth paid for it in cash, covering the full cost of $13.5 million from his own pocket. The money was drawn from his share of the profit from the 5 & 10¢, and from the reserves that the magnate had built up after selling shares when Woolworth's was incorporated in 1905.
From the outset the goal was to turn a profit, as well as to prove the power of nickels and dimes. Woolworth established a separate company to oversee the project. He became the Chairman of the Broadway Place Realty Corporation, and took on much of the work himself. He negotiated for most of the building materials, tracked progress and set his mind to marketing the building and sub-letting the floor space. He aimed to attract the best New York businesses. He knew they would pay a premium for the prestige and novelty, observing "Business men will fall over themselves to be able to say their offices are in the tallest building on earth".
The Building would have to be elegant and practical as well as tall. As New York had stretched skywards there had been scare stories of lifts tumbling to the ground and power cuts leaving wealthy entrepreneurs stranded. To address this Woolworth worked with Thomas Edison to plan two generating stations, each with two Corliss engines in the sub-basement. These would make the building self-sufficient for power. According to the pre-publicity, the generators had enough capacity to supply a city of fifty thousand people.
Gilbert and his patron worked with the Otis Company to design thirty express lifts with special safety brakes, air cushions and speed governors. The design guaranteed to bring a falling lift safely to a halt. To prove the concept a box of eggs was dropped from the top of the building in a publicity stunt. The safety features didn't compromise speed - the lifts could travel from the lobby all the way to the viewing platform in under a minute! And if the passengers got bored in that time, they could always use the on-board telephone!
By the opening every square inch of the massive building had been let. F.W. Woolworth Co. took the whole of the 24th floor at the top of the main section of the building, below the tower. They also took part of the floor below. The 24th was built at double-height. It housed Frank's private office, known as the 'Empire Room', which was decorated in the Napoleonic style.
The Building employed 300 service personnel, who took care of maintenance and looked after the 15,000 people who worked there every day.
On 24 April 1913, Frank Woolworth was particularly proud to welcome Thomas Alvar Edison to the grand opening of the Woolworth Building. Upon arrival guests were surprised to be shown to the banqueting suite by candlelight, with the whole tower in semi-darkness. The F, W, Woolworth Co. President had arranged for another President to perform the opening. At the appointed hour, down the coast in Washington DC, the Commander-in-Chief himself, Woodrow Wilson, flicked a switch at his desk in the White House, instantly illuminating the tower from top to bottom with Edison's magnificent electric lamps. It was enough to bring New York's traffic to a stop as it lit the night sky, and to win applause for all those involved in the construction. Truly a light bulb moment!
Despite the wealth of the Founders and the Company's use of electric lighting in-store, until the 1930s most customers' homes were lit by gas and heated by coal. Woolworth supplied a full range of spares and accessories, including rubber hoses, copper tubing, gas taps and keys. The most popular items were porcelain 'domes' or lampshades for everything from a ceiling light to a table lamp. These were sold for sixpence each.
Household disposable incomes for working people were much lower than they are today, meaning that most families were slow to embrace the wonders of electricity in the home. Sales of plugs, sockets and incandescent light bulbs were much slower in rural Britain than in comparable stores in the USA. It was only the slum clearance and new home building of the early 1930s that finally saw electrical sales overtake gas across the Company.
The transition from gas to electricity is shown in the sign, promoting Household Week, 1931, in the window of the store in Liverpool's London Road, near the University.
During the 1930s Woolworth was the first retailer to embrace the new wonder material, bakelite, which was an early plastic. It was used to make lots of electrical fittings, including switches, plugs and adaptors. The sixpenny price was unbeatable. The Buyer worked to develop the market with help from the suppliers Ward and Goldstone and HH Electrical. They produced leaflets showing how to wire a plug and install a drop light and switch.
Bakelite was revolutionary compared with previous materials. When molten it could be coloured to any shade and moulded to any shape. As it cooled it dried rigid and durable, if a little vulnerable to cracking if it was dropped. The material was used for brightly coloured kitchenwares and for a wide selection of jewellery and decorative items, but excelled in a dark brown colour for light switches and surrounds, lampholders and plug sockets.
Some Thirities-built homes still have a few original bakelite fittings. Sniff and you may spot a one of the lampholder, because as it heats up from the light of the bulb it smells slightly fishy!
Most items were sold without packaging. They were stacked loose between glass dividers on the mahogany counters. Customers could ask for a paper bag, but most did not. Each store had a wall display board which showing the full range and prices together. 'How to' leaflets were sold in the book department with wiring diagrams and more detailed installation instructions for difficult items like multi-way switches. These were sold separately.
This Woolworth torch played a special part in helping East Enders through the Blitz.
Each night its owner held her fingers over the lens and directed the light to the power lines above, helping tram conductors to switch their power rod as they turned for the return journey during the blackout.
Our correspondent says 'you always got a lot for sixpence at Woolies, but this torch deserves a medal for its service to London!'
After the Second World War the electrical range was expanded to include many new items. By this time the company had dropped its sixpenny limit, opening a world of new possibilities to its Buyers.
The store selection included a dozen different 'Sunshine Lamps' in bright yellow boxes. New lines included electric flex for fourpence a yard (approx 2p per metre), lamp shades for of up to five shillings (25p) and table lamps for five shillings and ninepence (29p).
Lighting canopies for shades heralded a move up-market, (below), along with dispensers to make it easier to buy flex off the roll.
Rising household incomes in the 1950s saw many households buying or renting their first television set. Woolworth's did a roaring trade in coaxial cable and insulating tape.
The range of bulbs was enlarged as customers became more affluent. Where once most shoppers had lit their homes by gas, now as well as bulbs for lighting, Woolworth also sold for replacement bulbs for cars and motorbikes, as well as radios and other household appliances.
A decade later the chain added appliances to its range. The fires, hairdryers, power tools and striplights developed for a new own-label called Winfield. The largest stores also offered branded televisions, washing machines and other large domestic appliances. During the 1970s these items were available from some smaller stores through a new catalogue subsidiary, Shoppers World .
Customers also found it quaint that the staff were instructed to test every bulb in baton lampholder before it was sold. The lamp boxes had open ends to make this possible.
The practice was finally dropped in 1982, after new management concluded that it presented a hazard under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. Despite the live terminals at ever till, there is no evidence of electrocutions over the previous 65 years!
The trading environment was difficult in the 1970s, as the chain struggled to reinvent itself against a backdrop of high inflation, a rapid increase in wage costs and intense competition. The parent company's diversification ventures also failed to sparkle in North America. In 1982 it sold its controlling interest in the British subsidiary to a local consortium, using the money to pay down its debts.
The new owners identified the potential for substantial profits by capitalising on the recent acquisition of the B&Q DIY chain, and by selling some of the largest Woolworth freeholds. The remaining High Street stores were given a radical overhaul to improve profits. Over time the wider business transformed into an international retail empire, known as Kingfisher, which had many different brands.
The main Woolworth DIY operations were moved out-of-town to B&Q, which became the runaway market leader. As the stores became smaller they also dropped electrical appliances, with another Group acquisition, Comet, taking up the slack.
In 1984-5 a new look was trialled in the High Street. Lighting, electrical accessories and lampshades featured strongly. Sales and profits rose in the trial. Assessment showed that the investment required to upgrade the lighting canopies in the stores was too high, meaning this element was dropped before the new formula was extended across the chain.
The range of light bulbs and accessories was updated. Multipacks of four 40, 60 or 100 watt lamps for 99p became a popular promotion, along with packs of three plugs fitted with either 3 or 13 amp fuses. At the time appliances were not fitted with a plug. Customers had to buy them separately.
Another innovation was coloured plugs and switches. Red proved most popular. The selection co-ordinated with the kitchen and home accessories offered elsewhere in-store.
New displays of Duracell and Ever Ready batteries aimed to persuade customers to trade up from traditional zinc carbon to long-life alkaline cells.
Flex moved into pre-packs rather than being sold from the reel, targeting minor repairs rather than major DIY projects.
The new look stores were praised. The Board was credited with transforming the fortunes of the 75 year old retailer. The highly-effective MD, Mair Barnes, was honoured with a CBE, and won the coveted Business Woman of the Year award.
The Prime Minister, The Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher, PC MP, endorsed a Young Leaders of the Future Initiative and made a number of appearances at her local Woolies in Grantham, Lincolnshire. She was photographed buying multipack bulbs on one of her visits, going on to top up her hosiery drawer!
Sales volumes were maintained by ensuring that prices remained competitive. In the 1990s the Directors, prompted by Commercial Director Rob Cissell, responded to the competitive threat emerging from the expansion of Wilkinson. Prices were cut across the Home Departments, particularly in stores with strong competition.
The tough market kept the chain on its toes, holding margins in check and encouraging the Buyers to keep prices as low as possible. They succeeded in maintaining the leading share of bulb, accessory and battery sales until the mid 1990s. However one threat was much more difficult to contend with. Supermarkets started to make in-roads into general merchandise, concentrating their fire-power on everyday essentials like lightbulbs. Initially they competed more on convenience and their free car parking than directly on price. From 1994 onwards Woolworths fought back with improved on-shelf availability helped by new technology and by exploiting software to offer multibuy promotions through the tills. Market share was maintained and sales and profits continued to be healthy until the chain demerged from the Kingfisher and changed direction in 2002.
After the demerger a new Board decided to target mums, with a child-centric offer of clothes, toys, cards, sweets and entertainment. This took space from the traditional home ranges, and brought changes to the types of items and pricing strategy for what remained. The ranges became more stylish, with a higher proportion of expensive items like computers, mobile phones and multi-way extension leads, and fewer cheap accessories. The new business model had a narrower appeal, and demanded higher margins on each item sold. It attracted a dedicated following from mums and children, who spent more on each visit.
After four years of decline in overall electrical sales, a change at the top resulted in a sales revival for light bulbs and the traditional electrical range. Tony Page, who joined as Commercial Managing Director, challenged the team to improve availability. As a shopper he had found it hard to buy a light bulb at Woolworths, as they were always out of stock. He also shaped a new value range which he hoped would 'outshine' the competition. The result was WorthIt! which brough jaw-drop prices on mass-produced lines. The products included a standard light bulb for 20p; in real terms this was the chain's cheapest ever, the equivalent of half a penny rather than sixpence in earlier times. WorthIt! goods also included a selection of power tools, budget radios and other home appliances.
Such was the success of the range that it attracted attention from a surprising quarter. The environmental lobbying group Greenpeace besieged the company's offices in Marylebone Road, demanding to know why inefficient incandescent lightbulbs were being offered so cheaply. They followed this up with a spoof Wooly and Worth TV commercial on the Internet.
The affair reminded customers that the firm stocked bulbs and also provided a platform to expose the firm's difficulty in getting low energy bulbs to market at a drop down price. The European Community had rules in place preventing the import of 'green' bulbs from the Far East, which held prices up in the shops. The furore resulted in a change in the law, achieved largely by the lobbying power of Greenpeace, and saw Woolworths sell more than a million 11W WorthIt! light bulbs for just 50p each, a reduction of 80% on the prevailing price at the time.
In 2007, for the first time since demerger, customer traffic increased and sales of accessories started to grow again. Sadly it was too late. Growing losses and burgeoning debts meant the business was unable to follow through on the green shoots of recovery. Unable to persuade their bankers to provide additional funding during the Credit Crunch, the entire Woolworths Group collapsed into Administration shortly before Christmas 2008. The High Street stores put the lights out for the last time just under forty days later.
Today in some small local High Streets there is nowhere to buy a light bulb. Supermarkets have gained the leading market share of batteries as other retailers compete to fill the gap that Woolworths stores have left. The name survives and prospers on-line but, as yet,does not embrace the everyday knick knacks that sustained the brand for many of its ninety-nine years in the High Street.
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