Panorama - a Century of Pots and Pans from Woolworths
The simple saucepan played a defining role in establishing F. W. Woolworth at the heart of the High Street, and helped the chain to prosper for five generations. This page tells the story of how Woolworths got the world cooking, with decently-made, mass-produced pots and pans. It also reveals how tastes, designs and manufacturing changed over five generations.
Recently Sum Woolworth's great grandson very kindly shared a picture of that store from the family album. It shows its frontage dominated by a bold display of pans.
The pots were typical of the Woolworth ethos - mass produced, decent quality, practical products at jaw-drop prices. When the first pan went on sale for five cents, it was fifteen cents cheaper than at any other store in town.
The first items were ends-of-ranges from New York's wholesalers, bought at cut price. These were topped up with surplus from Moores in Watertown. But from the outset Frank Woolworth aimed to trace his merchandise back to source and buy directly from the manufacturers.
Over time, as he grew in experience and confidence, Woolworth was able to draw learning from other plants that he had visited, both in North America and, from 1890 onwards, in Europe. Throughout his life he evangelised the merits of the European system of mass production and spurred many American factories to modernise by placing big orders and paying for them to re-tool.
In the early days he grew his buying power by establishing a syndicate in which he sourced products on behalf of a group of friendly rival companies. Little by little manufacturers learnt that a contract to supply the Woolworth Syndicate was like gold-dust, and guaranteed a regular income which was paid on time. By 1905 the consortium had grown to almost 500 stores across North America, with immense buying power. By this time the Founder had cultivated a small group of very loyal suppliers and channelled business to them whenever he could.
As the Woolworth Syndicate expanded across North America, saucepans and bakeware proved a big favourite with shoppers. The chain held household weeks in which the selection of tinplated and cast iron pans dominated the salesfloor. Some stores even put improvised hooks above the aisles to make a spectacular show.
From the turn of the twentieth century, a reshipping warehouse adjacent to the store in Sixth Avenue, New York received stocks from suppliers in bulk and despatched them onwards by rail to the rest of the chain. The man in charge of the operation was the Founder's Second Cousin, Fred Moore Woolworth, an ambitious young manager who used the role as an opportunity to learn about the product range and the sources of supply.
Further expansion took the Syndicate into prime shopping parades like Chicago's State Street, attracting a more diverse clientele. The Founder was no longer content to limit his offer to simple steel and alloy pots and pans; he wanted to broaden the range.
Adopting the latest trend, he sought a range of white enamel saucepans. To achieve this, he worked with a number of factories, ordering just one or two designs from each, and taking care not to reveal his overall plan. He built up stock behind the scenes in his stores until the range was complete.
Then, overnight, he placed the whole range on sale, nationwide. Bold signs announced 'Our new line of WHITE ENAMELWARE is now complete. Our highest price 10¢." Virtually all of the stock was sold out in a single day. From then on the supplier factories worked around the clock to satisfy demand as Woolworth's cornered the market.
In 1909 Woolworth launched his most radical plan to date - overseas stores in the UK. For almost 20 years he had been a regular Transatlantic traveller, making the crossing several times each year on Buying Trips. His stores stocked both luxuries and staple goods from Europe, where factories were generally more advanced and had cheaper operating costs than in the USA.
On each trip Frank had mused about the possibility of opening a British chain. In 1896 he wrote in his diary, "I believe that a good penny and sixpence store, run by a live Yankee would create a storm here, but maybe not." Finally he believed the time was right. He incorporated F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. in London in July 1909 and travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles for possible store locations.
Frank appointed his second cousin Fred Moore Woolworth as the Managing Director in the UK. A Superintendent from New York, Byron De Witt Miller took responsibility for Buying, supported by the firm's first local recuit, William Stephenson, who was hired from a supplier.
The first branch opened in Church Street, Liverpool on 5 Nov 1909, just five months after the advance party landed in Britain. While most of its range closely mirrored the offer in the USA, virtually everything offered for sale was European made. The two Buyers had tracked down indigenous sources for most of the products and had been able to buy more cheaply than their American counterparts thanks to the greater efficiency and automation in Britain, France and Germany.
Saucepans made from Sheffield steel were in the range on the first day. They sold out within minutes of opening.
It was clear at once the kitchen shop was a winner. The Buyers had been able to build on the Founder's work in the USA, offering a range of enamelled saucepans and lids as a luxury range alongside cheaper steel and alloy models.
A five inch (12.5cm) enamel milk pan without a lid was threepence (1¼p, about £1.11 today) and larger eight and nine inch (20-22.5cm) pans in cream or pastel blue were just sixpence (2½p).
The popularity of the pans meant that they were displayed at the back, with a special maroon and gold 'Household & Kitchen Goods Dept.' sign. MD Fred Woolworth placed the pans next to the Tea Bar so that customers would spot the fact the store's own meals and drinks were prepared using the same utensils that they sold.
By the early 1930s Woolworths had become a phenomenon. It operated more than five hundred stores in every major High Street of the United Kingdom and Irish Free State, with a new branch joining the chain every three days.
Each week twelve million people shopped at the stores, contributing to a huge buying power. Suppliers were forced to make economies to compensate for rising raw material prices. As a result at Woolworth pans continued to sell for sixpence as their competitors were forced to put prices up.
Many of the saucepans found their way onto the stoves of the well-to-do as the stores attracted an ever-wider clientele.
New Thirties products included an extended range of tinware and aluminium bellied pans, as well as oven-to-tableware in both earthenware and the latest fashionable bakelite finish.
Assembled together the range made a bright, shiny window display, awash with threepenny and sixpenny price tickets.
Between 1935 and 1937 raw material prices rose rapidly as Britain started to re-arm. By 1938 it was no longer economic to sell the largest nine and ten inch (22-25cm) saucepans for sixpence, leaving the Company's Directors with a dilemma. Should they follow the American parent company and drop the price limit? Or should they stop selling saucepans to maintain profits?
In the end they came up with a rather cheeky solution. The larger-sized saucepans and their lids were priced separately, each for sixpence, making a complete saucepan a shilling (5p). Customers could choose whether to buy a lid.
The trick was repeated on other ranges in-store. For example special government taxes were shown separately. As a result gas lighters were sold for a shilling and playing cards for ninepence. Woolen socks were sold singly, meaning a pair was also a shilling.
Cartoonists drew one-legged shoppers staring at a sum on the blackboard which showed 6+6=6. But customers knew that even at a shilling the items were under half of the price charged elsewhere. The story did not last long. The outbreak of war brought an end to the sixpenny limit. Before long it was hard to obtain a large saucepan at any price.
Early in the war, many factories were requisitioned. The specialist tooling in saucepan plants made them suitable to make aircraft parts, causing pan stocks to run out. A well-intentioned PR campaign made things worse. It encouraged people to hand in any surplus pans. Expecting the war to be over quickly, many families gave away their largest pans to be made into Spitfires for the RAF. They only found out much later that most landed up on a scrap-heap of useless metal.
News that a store had received a rare saucepan consignment quickly drew a big queue. This had tragic consequences at the New Cross store, where more than 100 people were waiting to buy a saucepan when the store was obliterated by a V2 rocket. Only one person survived.
Saucepans remained in short supply until 1950, long after the war was won. A government export drive required that most manufactured goods were sold abroad to earn foreign exchange, which was needed to repay war loans. But gradually stock did return to the shelves.
Initially the product designs were similar to those before the war, although prices had risen by up to 450% as a result of inflation. For example kettles had risen from sixpence (2½p) in 1935 to two shillings and ninepence (13¾p) in 1950. The rise in prices was accentuated by a move up-market at Woolworths, as the Buyers introduced more luxurious products at the top end of the range.
Prompted by the US parent, a handful of stores switched to self-service operation in the late 1950s. One of these trials took place in Queen's Square, Crawley. The Sussex village had been designated a 'new town' and got a new, much larger store in the new format. Despite some success in Crawley, nationally most customers did not like serving themselves. They missed the personal service and advice at each counter and preferred several short queues to one long one. Executives were also concerned as they felt the layout was more vulnerable to shoplifting. As a result the concept did not find favour in the Board Room. By 1959 the chain had risen to the top of the stock market as the country's most successful retailer. Only the petro-chemical giant ICI Corporation stood between Woolworth and the number one spot. The Directors saw no merit in rocking the boat.
Such arrogance is rarely a good formula for running a business, and during the 1960s the chain started to lose its advantage. After a period when external regulatory factors had given Woolworth an edge over the competition, rivals started to move forward as Woolworth stood still. Legislation forced competitors to lower their prices. Woolworth was exempt and did not maintain their differential. And as other retailers espoused self-service and worked to make their store layouts more efficient, Woolworth stuck with its tried and tested personal service counters. Investment money was used to expand the largest stores still further. For example the Castle Street, Shrewsbury, Shropshire (below) got a multi-million pound extension but on its opening day already looked dated.
In 1964 a low entry price point own label, Winfield, was launched. The idea came from the American parent company. Until this date many different brand names had been used. Customers had come to think of come of these exclusives as supplier brands. All of these ranges were packaged in Winfield livery. It was intended to signify exceptional value for basic lines. To hold prices down many items were made abroad, particularly in Hong Kong.
Another initiative from the USA prompted the Board to develop a new superstore chain. Woolco was the first general merchandiser to open out of town, taking on green and brown field sites with ample car parking and building huge single-storey structures to house salesfloors of 65,000 to 100,000 square feet (6-9000m2). The new enterprise aimed to offer a one-stop shop, with the full range from the High Street stores, topped up by an extended range of food, fashions and homewares. These included the High Street selection of pots and pans along with some more expensive branded items from the leading manufacturers of the day. For the first time the chain also sold cookers to go with their pots and pans.
Saucepans went through a style revolution in the late Sixties. It is said that new Teflon coating that made saucepans non-stick was born out of the space programme, as NASA scientists worked to overcome the many barriers to space travel. Certainly when President John F. Kennedy announced the mission in 1961 he knew that new materials and new technologies would be required to achieve his vision.
When the first non-stick utensils went on sale they were called 'saucepans for the space age'. They cost a little more than the traditional enamel, stainless steel or alloy models. Customers considered the price differential was worth it. Most found they cooked better and were easier to clean.
By 1970 all of the upmarket 'fancy' range has been replaced by non-stick pans. The Buyer opted for brightly polished stainless steel exteriors and missed out on another emerging trend, as shoppers sought brightly colour and patterned enamelled pans, that co-ordinated with their utensils, appliances and tiling. Sales were lost to Marks and Spencer, Littlewoods and British Home Stores, as each rival chain introduced more stylish homewares. In 1972 Woolworth finally recognised that customers were prepared to pay a higher premium for a more stylish design rather than necessarily seeking the lowest possible price. It was only when news broke that Boots the Chemists had acquired the household specialist Timothy White and Taylors and planned to continue the expansion of its cookware range that Woolworth's launched a review to try to bring its kitchen shop back up to date.
In 1982 the British Woolworths changed hands in a management buy-in. The new owners decided to adapt the trading formula and range. The stores gave up selling whole departments to make way for more authoritative displays in six key areas, including Home, Kitchen and Garden.
The Kitchen shop got a major makeover, with more fashionable, colour co-ordinated products that were 'geared to Eighties living'. The merchandise selection was re-engineered to appeal to a broader group of customers. The saucepan range was typical. It was reclassified to "good, better and best" models. The budget range called 'bellied pans" were non-stick polished aluminium. 'Monarch' mid-priced saucepans were coated with cream enamel with a floral pattern. At the top of the range the stores also stocked big brand names like Tefal and Tower at low prices.
While some stores got a full refit and an enhanced shopping environment, others had to make do with a spit and polish and the new merchandise. The pictures highlight the difference between a refurbished store (above) and a traditional store (right). The older store still had its original emergency gas light from a bygone age.
Refurbishments were completed when the tight budget allowed. The branches that had the highest potential were tackled first. The first stores were used to test new ranges and, for the first time, to model price elasticities and the best layouts and fixtures. The products and new layout principles were rapidly extended to the remaining stores, some time before the shopping environment was updated.
The new formula drove a major increase in profit. This helped to finance the store modernisation programme and boosted dividends for investors.
New threats emerged in the 1990s. Wilkinsons started to expand rapidly. The Sheffield-based discounter enjoyed success with a low entry price point range that undercut even the cheapest Woolworths products. The era also saw the supermarkets' first big push into general merchandise. Tesco led the way with a revitalised home'n'wear selection.
Kingfisher responded with an everyday low price initiative. Each operating company was told to find ways to improve value by working closely with its suppliers. The marketing initiative, nicknamed 'EDLP', aimed to move away from half-price promotions to year-round value for money.
This approach echoed the Founder's principles from the 1880s. He proved that it was possible to make a higher profit by selling more for less. The Buyers had to follow the same steps that Frank Woolworth had done, examining the manufacturing process and eliminating things that drove up costs without really benefitting the customer.
EDLP helped to restore the Woolworths' fortunes. For the first time profit topped £100m in 1997, proving the merit of teaching a new dog old tricks!
In 1998, as part of a new strategy, the Kitchen Shop was relaunched, with a larger range and purpose-built fixtures. Customer reaction was positive, but the move did not fully justify the cutbacks to other ranges in the High Street. The initiative was more successful at the new out-of-town Big W stores. These attracted new customers and offered the same convenient free parking as the supermarkets.
Kingfisher hit difficulties when its planned merger with Asda supermarkets failed. Investors forced a re-think which led to a decision to demerge Woolworths. The company floated on the stock market in Summer 2001.
A new management was appointed. The incoming CEO, Trevor Bish-Jones, did not believe that the company's goal to be 'everybody's everyday store' could be sustained. Instead he opted to specialise in products for children under the banner 'Kids and Celebrations'. From 2002 onwards the importance of the Kitchen ranges started to diminish. As the stores were updated, the displays were demoted to the very back of the sales floor.
In a reversal of the strategy in the 1990s, the new CEO's goal was to increase the cash margin on each item sold and to drive increased spend by selling a larger proportion of more expensive items from an elegant, upgraded store environment.
Pans and cookware got large wall displays. A new range of small electric appliances had pride of place on new underlit floating shelves (right).
The Kingston results were excellent. Between 2003 and 2005 the formula was repeated in 150 of the larger stores nationally.
A new 'Cook!' range of saucepans with thick bases, the latest non-stick coating, glass lids and a polished finish, attracted shoppers away from specialist stores in up-market locations. But it proved less of a hit in poorer areas, where customers chose cheaper options in Wilkinson and the major supermarkets.
The upgrading of the merchandise worked well in bright modern stores like Bristol, Hartcliffe (right), but appeared incongruous in most of the smaller stores where the shopping environment had deteriorated as a result of cutbacks to the maintenance budget. Some loyal customers felt betrayed by the 21st century changes.
Rather than invest in upgrading the smaller stores, an in-store ordering system was launched, backed by an upgraded website. Perhaps the approach was strategically correct. It might have had the potential to revitalise the brand in the long term. But it had high set-up costs and needed time to realize its potential. For the same cost all of the small stores could have been give a facelift. The number of shoppers visiting each week fell by two million between 2002 and 2005. By 2006 it seemed that only the wolf was at the door.
To stop the rot the chain bought in new expertise, hiring Tony Page from the non-food portfolio at Asda. The new man felt Woolworths had become uncompetitive and had missed a trick in displaying only up-market ranges. He argued that the chain was disappointing customers who wanted 'low entry price point' lines. He immediately set about sourcing decently-made lines at jaw-drop prices.
Between 2006 and 2008 Page's team established a new 'WorthIt!' range of around 1,000 products. Soon these consistently accounted for more than £1m sales each week, and provided more than half of the chain's top 100 sellers. For the first time in a decade customer traffic into the stores started to increase. To the surprise of many newcomers, the introduction of budget pots and pans attracted new shoppers who actually bought the more expensive 'Cook!' range. It seemed they opted to 'trade up' when the saw that the high product quality made them good value.
Sadly, with many of the smaller stores in poor condition as a result of six years of savage cuts to maintenance budgets, the revival came too late. When the chain over extended itself by developing its wholesale operations too fast, the banks lost patience. Just as Woolies had finally rediscovered the value roots that had sustained it for much of its 99 years, the stores vanished from the High Street.
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