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A well-loved high street icon

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With Woolworths stores now empty shells in our high streets it is of interest to look back at the establishment of the company.

In 1873 William Moore, co-owner of the struggling Augsbury & Moore dry goods store in Watertown, New York, asked his young sales assistant Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852–1919) to implement Moore’s new idea — to display all surplus stock at a single set price of five cents per piece. A fixed price display of goods is usual today, but at the time it was a first.

Shops would not display prices and the assistant would charge what he considered the customer could afford. Woolworth had a flair for retailing and his display stimulated plenty of sales.

In 1879 Woolworth persuaded Moore to back him in opening a store of his own filled with five cent merchandise. The venture, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a huge success. Shortly afterwards Woolworth broadened his range with 10 cent lines and the great American institution the “five and ten” was born.

The first British store opened in Church Street, Liverpool, on Friday 5 November 1909. In keeping with American tradition no sales were made on the first day since it opened for viewing only. Sixpence was the highest price charged for any single article and the range of items was huge.

Cynics suggested that the Liverpool location was chosen so that when the business failed the pioneers could make a quick escape through the docks and back to America, leaving their debts behind them.

Visitors to the well-appointed premises were surprised at the exceptional value of the goods. The store was an instant success and the counters were virtually stripped bare before the end of the first day of trading.

The secret of success was mass production, with big orders placed and paid for in cash to secure better prices. Within three months of landing in England the entrepreneurs were sourcing nearly all of their merchandise locally. Within five years the UK had 43 Woolworths stores.

Each opening was more spectacular than the last, with orchestras, clowns, fireworks and dancers all designed to ensure success.

Woolworths has served the UK well over the past 99 years and it is sad that it did not quite reach its centenary.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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