Woolies: A store full of memories

For those of us who grew up in its glory years, its likely demise is like the passing of an old friend
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The Independent Online

The news that Woolworths is in talks to sell its stores is not just another bit of recessioniana. To those of us who invested our pocket money in its cheap toys, had our fillings removed by its pick'n'mix caramels, and did our first – and perhaps last – bit of shoplifting within its red and gold facades, it is the passing of an old friend. He may not have been at his best for many years, but the loss still stings.

The origins of Frank Woolworth's success in Britain are telling. What he brought here from America was his "five and dime" concept, anglicised so that everything was either 3d (1.5p) or 6d (2.5p). But he also imported the idea of bargains with class. On day one in 1909, the first store, in Liverpool, was opened "for inspection only", and had two orchestras playing light classical airs, and free pots of tea in the white table-clothed palm court restaurant. The next day, the crowds returned and the counters were practically stripped bare. By 1930, there were more than 350 stores, and councils were pleading with the firm to move into their high streets.

Each opening was accompanied by marching bands, fireworks, bunting, and some eye-catching loss-leaders. Particular successes in the 1920s were nine-carat gold rings for 6d, enamel baby baths at the same price, and 4oz of sweets for a penny. But then this was a store that, between the wars, sold lead crystal sherry glasses for 6d, sets of 18 metal picnic spoons for 3d and easy-listening records for less than you'd pay for a gobstopper now. Music was, from the mid-1920s, a speciality, and the chain was still the dominant record retailer until well into the 1990s. People flocked to buy Woolworths' own-label recordings, often by a famous orchestra playing under a nom-de-studio, or by unknowns (such as a teenage Vera Lynn) doing cover versions.

As the 1930s wore on, Woolworths' "everything 6d or under" concept was struggling. And so, not wishing to compromise quality or restrict the range, Woolworths played all kinds of games. Saucepans (6d) were sold separately from lids (also 6d), and if you wanted a cheap camera, you had to buy it in three separate 6d parts.

The Fifties was when I first knew Woolworths: the red and gold fascia, the mahogany counters with their glass dividers, and the wooden-floored aisles, whose straightness offered such direct and easy egress for the shoplifter. Train robber Buster Edwards started his thieving career at his local Woolies, and some of us tried feebly to follow. I once "liberated" a pencil rubber, and then, consumed with guilt, and certain all eyes were upon me, walked round the island of stationery counters – and put it back.

In the early 1960s, Woolworths still sold quality, if mass market, useful items: lightbulbs, screws, nails, curtain fixings and even serviceable fishing tackle. But this was not to last. Self-service crept in, quality tip-toed out, and in 1963 came the fatal decision to give all Woolworths' own products the same name: Winfield. Not often you get the chance to buy an ant killer, drain cleaner, bra and perfume all bearing the same brand name.

Then, as out-of-town shopping began to take off, someone at Woolworths decided the best response was to be a smaller version of the hypermarkets. Out went wooden counters, in came tinny shelves and racks; and on them a smaller range of plasticated merchandise. And, everywhere – above your head, in your eyeline but chiefly in your face – were lurid point-of-sale signs. The rest is how-not-to-do-it retail history.