A history of Christmas Cards and Wrapping Paper at Woolworth's
Woolworth stores first stocked Christmas Cards in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA in 1879, and the 5 & 10¢ had become the market leader before it branched out internationally with its first store in the UK in 1909.
In the early days the stores sold Christmas cards in postcard format, allowing customers to write their own message and add the address. They cost one old penny each (about 0.5p). At the time a postage stamp also cost one penny.
In the UK Woolworths sold cards, wrapping paper, calendars and diaries to five generations of shoppers between 1909 and 2008, outselling every other company in the twentieth century. But in the end the chain's 2009 diary went on to become a highly-prized collectable, for all the wrong reasons.
Frank Woolworth was quick to spot the potential for Christmas products in his American stores, establishing ranges of cards, wrapping paper and decorations in his very first store. He devoted up to a quarter of the space in the chain to 'seasonables' from October onwards. This allowed him to maximise sales throughout the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year festivites. His products were famous for their innovative design and jaw-drop prices.
From 1890 onwards much of the innovation came from regular buying trips to Europe. He found that London and Berlin printers used photogravure techniques to produce colour cards, while Americans were limited to black and white. Between 1895 and 1910 many of the cards sold Stateside were European in origin, making Christmas at the five-and-ten a festival of bright colours.
By 1909 Frank Woolworth delegated most Buying work.But he took a personal interest in the range of cards for his new British stores. He resolved that rather than simply duplicate the most popular lines from North America, like the "Saint Nick" design on the left, the British offer should be "quaint and traditional". The card on the right was one of his selections.
Frank had a great passion for England. He spent time and money to prove his lineage back to the Pilgrim Fathers. He claimed English-descent and believed the name came from an ancestral home in sixteenth century Woolley, Cambridgeshire. He also believed this was why the British nicknamed his company 'Woolies', or perhaps 'Woolley's".
Quaint or not, at one old penny each (about ½p) or 7 for sixpence (2½p) proved to be great sellers !
Each year more designs were added to the firm's selection. After the Founder returned to the USA, the Buyers William Stephenson and John Ben Snow were able to include some more up-to-date designs, like the popular World War I favourites that are shown at the top of this web page. Each is over ninety years years old and comes from a private collection.
Other popular favourites in the Christmas range included wrapping paper (both with floral designs and more traditional brown paper to send presents through the post), as well as diaries, calendars and gift tags. By the 1920s many of the card designs had a varnished glossy finish. Most came from one of four suppliers, Raphael Tuck & Sons, Alf Cooke & Sons of Leeds, Valentine's and Thomas Hope, Sankey Hudson of Manchester.
Right through into the 1930s prices for basic cards were held down to a single old penny (½p). In the late 1920s the first folded cards and envelopes were put on sale, with the larger and more luxurious single cards selling for 2D each (1p).
Mass-marketing policies meant each supplier made lots of items. For example Alf Cooke and Sons made playing cards as well as Christmas Cards, and Thomas Hope, the maker of gummed ring reinforcers, were invited to produce altogether more exotic packs of brightly coloured gift tags (right) for just threepence (1¼p) a pack.
One of the great strengths was offering both budget ranges (with lots of cards or wrap for sixpence - left) and more aspirational products like individual ribbons (below) for sixpence each.
During the 1930s the firm started to sell assortment packs of cards. The illustration below shows that some of the designs remain quite contemporary today and might still appear in a budget box of traditional cards on sale in a value store.
Some of the multi-packs contained an assortment of cards, gift tags and seals (short pieces of sticky tape). Selling at sixpence (2½p) each, these provided a complete one-stop shop for anyone wanting to wrap a Christmas present.
Woolworth chartered whole railway trains to deliver supplies of cards and wrapping paper to their stores. To keep prices down the firm chose mainly British suppliers and took delivery of their season's requirements in the early summer, before the school holidays. By taking a supplier's first production and paying promptly the Buyers were able to obtain big discounts. Canny suppliers ploughed the proceeds into raw materials to make more stock to sell to smaller companies later in the year.
This type of supplier partnership was one of the ways that Woolworths managed to sell their ranges at lower prices and better margins than most of their smaller rivals.
Despite austerity and shortages elsewhere in-stores, Buyers worked with the British Government to secure plentiful supplies of Christmas Cards throughout the Second World War. This goal was to maintain morale on the Home Front, particularly with so many people fighting abroad. The Woolworth Chairman, William Stephenson, split has time between his duties at the retailer and a special role in the Air Ministry, reporting to the media mogul Lord Beaverbrook. The tycoon used his influence to help Stephenson to secure supplies of paper and card. As a quid pro quo prices for cards and basic wrap were held to pre-war levels, despite the rapid inflation of the war years.
The gesture was rewarded by rapid increases in sales of thirty percent or more each year from 1940-3. It also helped to reinforce the retailer's position at the heart of local communities, which helped sustain the brand for many years.
Displays were given an overhaul in the 1950s, with lampshade canopies adapted to allow calendars and gift bows to be displayed above the counters. These were clearly visible from the store front, even though displayed in the middle or rear section of the store. Bold wall features of single sheets of wrapping paper in the early 1950s gradually made way for folded sheets in flat packs. Both types are visible in the pictures from Commercial Road, Portsmouth (above).
1957 saw the introduction of a new way of selling cards. New racks allowed customers to browse, while also releasing space on the walls for new Toys and Homewares. Until this date most Greeting and Christmas Cards had been arranged between glass dividers at a single level on the flat top personal service counters. Experiments with self-service prompted the rethink.
For the first time cards and envelopes were displayed together. The labour-saving idea (which seems obvious now), reduced transaction times. Assistants no longer need to grabble to find the envelope under the counter when the customer went to pay !
This style of display quickly took hold and remains the basic principle in card shops to this day. In 1960 the thousand British and Irish stores sold over a million multiboxes of 12 cards, at prices from one shilling (5p) to two shillings and sixpence (12½p) each.
New competition emerged in the 1960s. Woolworth responded with an own brand label for their best value, low-priced products throughout each store. It trialled a few items like the 'Silkyshene' Crepe Paper on the left in 1964. Success meant Winfield branding was used on all Christmas lines from 1965 to 1981.
During the 1960s suppliers were encourage to cut production costs while also keeping their designs up-to-date. They excelled. The modern styling helped to keep Woolworth ahead of its competitors. As sales built, the retailer became increasingly dependent on the 'Golden Quarter' for annual profits. The success of the Christmas range was in marked contrast to some other Winfield products. The own brand included everything from Weedkiller to Perfume! In other areas quality was compromised as production was moved overseas to keep these lines ultra-cheap. But Christmas Cards and Wrapping Paper were the exception. Long-established British suppliers kept quality standards high and built a reputation for excellence.
The first challenge facing the new owners was to arrest the decline and turn the business around. The Christmas ranges were identified as a clear area of strength to promote and build on. They gave the range extra space and broadened the product selection to include aspirational products to attract more affluent customers. The move upmarket was reflected in a change of slogan from 'The ever more spectacular Woolworth Christmas Show' in 1983 to 'The real magic of Christmas' in 1984. Customers liked the change and helped sales to continue to grow for the next twenty years.
Under the leadership of Geoff (Sir Geoffrey) Mulcahy, Kingfisher nurtured home-grown talent at Woolworths, injecting new strategy and ideas and leaving seasoned Buyers like Roger Stafford, the Cards and Decorations supremo at the firm and a second-generation Woolworth man, to put the theory into practice.
Sheet giftwrap was largely replaced by more fashionable rolls. Character brands were licenced for Christmas Cards and papers, aligned with the offer in the chain's improved ranges of Toys, Video Films and Ladybird Clothing. Self-adhesive gift tags largely replaced the older gummed variety, while pop calendars added a touch of the exotic above bold, prominent displays of cards and decorations in solid-red packaging in the middle of the store. Calendar displays were duplicated in the Entertainment department at the store-front.
Woolworths expertise was shared with the chain's increasingly successful sister company B&Q (the market-leading DIY store), and with Superdrug. Both chains extended their range of decorations, cards and wrapping paper, often from the same suppliers. Despite this Woolworths retained the leading market share and was even confident enough to offer charity cards without taking a margin.
During the 1990s Woolworths stores faced increased competition and, for the first time in over eight years, this started to hit sales of Cards. A series of strategies were enacted during the decade aimed to reduce the firm's dependence on the eight week trading period running up to Christmas. These enjoyed only limited success, and the so-called 'Golden Quarter' remained make or break.
In the main the competitive threat came not from traditional rivals like WHSmith, Marks and Spencer and Philip Green's resurgent BhS, but from new entrants to the market. The squeeze came both from supermarkets who found the higher margins of general merchandise attractive compared with groceries, and from DIY Stores and Garden Centres seeking ways to improve their returns in the traditional low-season of dark nights and cold weather. Woolworths responded with improved value and a market-leading offer of character brands, narrowly retaining the upper hand.
By 2002 the High Street chain had new Directors, with very different ideas about how to take the brand into the third millennium. Their goal for the Christmas ranges was to make them more stylish and aspirational as part of a move into 'Kids and Celebrations'.
The new management amplified the changes made by Kingfisher during the Eighties and Nineties, making the cards and wrapping paper more stylish and elegant. But they also cut back at their cheaper end of the range.
In parallel their Kids and Celebrations Strategy saw major changes to the layout of stores, with strong pressure to reduce the amount of movement between one season and another. The overall strategy resulted in an increased spend per customer but reduced the appeal of the brand for older customers and people who did not have children. The number of regular shoppers fell by two million per week between 2002 and 2005. Poor trading results saw an increasing level of turnover both at the chain's Head Office in London and in store and regional management, with disgruntled workers snapped up by rival companies keen to extend their offers of General Merchandise, particularly in the seasonal areas.
To compound the problem, the move up-market paved the way for rivals to launch lower-priced budget ranges of cards and wrapping paper, undercutting Woolworths. Where once the High Street stores had consistently offered the lowest price anywhere, now customers chose the brand for style and design, while supermarkets and a new generation of 'pound' value stores stepped in the lower end of the market.
The error was finally tackled in 2006 with a new, exceptional value low-priced range called WorthIt!. But this came too late. In 2006/7 Stocks were too low and sold out in hours, showing the potential for a bolder buy. But, despite offering the best-ever range at Christmas 2008, with style and design at lower prices than the pound shops, mounting debts and an international economic crisis forced the chain into Administration at the start of the peak trading period. Efforts to rescue the store chain came to nothing with turmoil in the markets and the Administrator closing out the stores just forty days later.
Fortunately, just weeks after the stores closed, Deloitte was able to announce the sale of the brand to the well-respected Shop Direct Group. The much-loved Woolworth name, if not the High Street shops, survives to fight another day and to earn the loyalty of a sixth generation of British customers. Shop Direct has built an enviable portfolio of brands and has demonstrated the alchemy required to take big names, reshape them for the Internet and to put them back on course. But in the meantime the ultimate irony has to be that every single Christmas Card, packet and roll of wrapping paper, calendar and diary that the chain had in stock sold out at full price. The Saturday after the Administration hit the news was largest trading day the High Street chain had ever seen. Perhaps sadder still is the occasional appearance of one of the firm's 2009 diaries - the year when the stores would have marked a hundred years in the High Street - for sale on eBay as a collectable, turned up to the entry reminding customers to buy a new Woolies diary for 2010.