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Frank Winfield Woolworth
1852 - 1919
 



Frank Winfield Woolworth, American merchant, was a pioneer in retailing methods. He established the great chain of "five-and-ten-cent" stores which bear his name.
 

 

Born to a poor farm family in upstate New York, F. W. Woolworth began his career by clerking in a general store in the local market centre. Impressed with the success of a five-cent clearance sale, he conceived the novel idea of establishing a store to sell a variety of items in volume at that price. With $300 in inventory advanced to him by his employer, Woolworth started a small store in Utica in 1879, but it soon failed. By 1881, however, Woolworth had two successful stores operating in Pennsylvania. By adding ten-cent items, he was able to increase his inventory greatly and thereby acquired a unique institutional status most important for the success of his stores.

The growth of Woolworth's chain was rapid. Capital for new stores came partly from the profits of those already in operation and partly from investment by partners whom Woolworth installed as managers of the new units. Initially, many of the partners were Woolworth's relatives and colleagues.

Convinced that the most important factor in ensuring the success of the chain was increasing the variety of goods offered, Woolworth in 1886 moved to Brooklyn, New York, to be near wholesale suppliers. He also undertook the purchasing for the entire chain. A major breakthrough came when he decided to stock candy and was able to bypass wholesalers and deal directly with manufacturers. Aware of the importance of the presentation of goods, Woolworth took the responsibility for planning window and counter displays for the whole chain and devised the familiar red store front which became its institutional hallmark.

The success of the chain between 1890 and 1910 was phenomenal. The company had 631 outlets doing a business of $60,558,000 annually by 1912. In that year Woolworth merged with five of his leading competitors, forming a corporation capitalized at $65 million. The next year, at a cost of $13.5 million, he built the Woolworth Building in downtown New York, the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time.

By 1915 Woolworth spent much of his time in Europe. When he died in 1919, the F. W. Woolworth Company, with over 1,000 stores, was perhaps the most successful retail enterprise in the world.
 


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Franklin Winfield Woolworth (April 13 1852 – April 8 1919) was an American merchant. Born in Rodman, N.Y., he was the founder of F.W. Woolworth Company, an operator of discount stores that priced merchandise at five and ten cents. He pioneered the now-common practices of buying merchandise direct from manufacturers and fixing prices on items, rather than haggling.

The son of a farmer, Woolworth aspired to be a merchant. In 1873, he started working in a dry goods store in Watertown, New York. He worked for free for the first three months, because the owner claimed "why should I pay you for teaching the business". He remained there for six years. There he observed a passing fad: Leftover items were priced at five cents and placed on a table. Woolworth liked the idea, so he borrowed $300 to open a store where all items were priced at five cents.

Woolworth's first five-cent store, established in Utica, New York on February 22 1879, failed within weeks. At his second store, established in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in April 1879, he expanded the concept to include merchandise priced at ten cents. The second store was successful, and Woolworth and his brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, opened a large number of five-and-ten-cent stores. His original employer was made a partner.

In 1911, the F.W. Woolworth Company was incorporated, uniting 586 stores founded by the Woolworth brothers and others. In 1913, Woolworth built the Woolworth Building in New York City at a cost of $13.5 million in cash. At the time, it was the tallest building in the world, measuring 792 feet, or 241.4 meters.

Woolworth's wealth also financed the building of his mansion, Winfield Hall in Glen Cove, New York in 1916. The grounds of the estate required 70 full time gardeners and the 56 room mansion required dozens of servants just for basic upkeep. The home's decor reflected Woolworth's fascinations with Egyptology, Napoleon and spiritualism (a huge pipe organ that Woolworth learned to play late in life combined with a planetarium style ceiling to provide an intentionally eerie effect) and was built with no expenses spared: the pink marble staircase alone cost $2 million to construct. In 1978 the abandoned and largely gutted mansion became the home of Monica Randall, a squatter who wrote a memoir of her experiences there entitled Winfield: Living in the Shadow of the Woolworths.

Married with three daughters and several grandchildren, his granddaughter Barbara Hutton would gain much publicity for her lifestyle, squandering more than $50 million.

Woolworth died on April 8 1919, five days before his 67th birthday. At the time, his company owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States and other countries and was a $65 million corporation. Bronze busts honouring Woolworth and seven other industry magnates stand outside between the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, Illinois.

By 1997, the original chain he founded had been reduced to 400 stores, and other divisions of the company began to be more profitable than the original chain. The original chain went out of business on July 17 1997, as the firm began its transition into Foot Locker, Inc..

The UK stores continued operating (albeit under separate ownership since 1982) after the US operation ceased under the Woolworth name and now trade as Woolworths.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008