Yankee Doodle Candy in the Nineteenth Century
Frank Woolworth maintained the popularity of his stores by always trying something new. This constant innovation helped him to stay ahead of the competition. His goal was to amaze customers at the sheer variety of items that their 5¢ or 10¢ could buy.
In 1886 he decided to tackle the sweets market, believing that it should be possible to bring the prevailing price of the day of around 25¢ for a quarter pound (about 8p for 125 grams) down to just 5¢. This would bring 'candy', as the Americans call sweets, into the price range of ordinary people, rather than keeping it for rich people to buy in department stores.
This is the story of how he did it.
Woolworth told his managers of his plans for a large candy counter at the front of each store. It would sell all sorts of sweets and confections. Customers would choose an assortment for 5¢ a quarter. He expected a good reaction.
Instead they told him he was bonkers! They argued he would never be able to make it pay, as he would need to get the cost price down to just 12¢ a pound (about 10p a kilo) to match the profit on other lines. They also feared it would be hard to manage, as they would need new fixtures and scales, as well as tight discipline to handle the sweets hygienically.
Frank said thank you, and pushed right ahead!
From his single-room buying office in the Stewart Building, Broadway, New York, the entrepreneur put the word out that he was interested in buying candy. At the time manufacturers rarely dealt directly with retailers, prefering to use a wholesaler as a middle-man. This made Frank's request particularly challenging. Despite touring local factories and evangelising the idea, while he could find people willing to trade, all thought his 3¢ a quarter offer was too low and that such a price could not be achieved.
Undaunted Woolworth conducted market research. He asked passers-by whether they would buy candy for 5¢ a quarter, and if there were any barriers that would discourage them making a purchase. A number of people pointed out that others had offered cheap candy on market stalls, but had compromised on quality, leading to a spate of food-poisoning scandals. But many would be glad to buy if the sweets were 'hygienic'. An endorsement from the Woolworth Five-and-Ten would be a good start.
Just when Woolworth was losing hope of finding a candy supplier, he received a call from Mr. D. Arnould, the owner of a small factory with its own shop. He invited Frank to pay him a call.
Woolworth found Arnould pleasant and approachable. The confectioner was unphased by the large quantity that the Five-and-Ten proprietor expected to sell, and believed that he could achieve the target price. Woolworth offered up-front payment, and to contribute towards any extra equipment that would be needed to handle the order.
The next day Arnould called at Woolworth's office. He had made a list of all the varieties of sweet that he could produce at a cost of 3¢ a quarter. While the list wasn't comprehensive, it included chocolate candy, boiled sweets and toffees, and was more than enough to win the order. The two men shook hands, and went on to make history! The opening order was for a trial run of 100 lbs (about 40 Kg) of sweets.
As Arnould scaled up his production, Woolworth commissioned new counters and weighing scales and signage. The entrepreneur deliberately copied the styling from Macey's department store, highlighting the 80% drop in price. As well as banners in shiny frames on the counter-tops, he also specified small triangular tickets for each flavour. He chose a reverse print design with a chocolate brown background and white writing. The same styling was used for the next seventy-five years.
The new candy counters looked spectacular. Part of a standard mahogany island counter was reduced in height, making room for a glass case above. The panes inwards. Inside, glass partitions made compartments for the different sweets.The chocolates, mints and toffee were crammed in to the bays. Each had brightly-coloured wrappings.
The layout aped Macey's displays. Today some delicatessen counters in supermarkets have a similar shape, using stainless steel or plastic in place of the mahogany of the late nineteenth century.
Managers were told to put their prettiest clerks on the candy counter. Each had an extra large scoop and a ready-reckoner table with the price for every conceivable weight. Any mis-shapen or unwrapped sweets were given away as samples. In Autumn 1886 the launch was a sell-out. After the first day's trading, Arnould's factory put on a night shift to keep up with demand.
Word of Mr Arnould's good fortune soon reached other confectioners. As sales rocketed he became wealthy. Before long the sceptics fell into line, sending Frank Woolworth samples and requesting his business. The Founder drove a hard bargain, offering much lower margins than he paid to Arnould. Frank Woolworth always favoured those partners who gave him a break, remaining loyal and giving them first refusal for any new line. Over the next thirty three years the chain ordered 4,400,000 lb (1,973 tonnes) of sweets from Arnould.
For the next seventy-five years, both in North America and later in Britain, a favoured technique of promoting sales of weigh-out sweets was to assemble elaborate window displays. Sometimes these featured new lines, but more frequently they were dressed with candy for special events like Halloween, Valentine's Day or Thanksgiving. We are proud to be able to share photographs of some of the windows that graced Main Streets across the USA and Canada in the 1910s and 1920s.
The century-old album contains a closely-guarded secret from the early days. Company rules dictated that each window had to be restocked every two days. The goal of the regular changes was not originally to drive sales, but to make sure that the sweets from the windows would still be fresh enough to sell!
Fast links to related content in the Woolworths Museum
Pic'n'Mix and Sweets Gallery