As an Aladdin’s cave of toys and other festive gifts, Christmas time at Woolworths was always a glittering affair! Shoppers would flock to enjoy the Christmas cheer, including Santa’s grotto and a multitude of baubles, tinsel and other sparkling decorations.
Nothing compared to Christmas at Woolworths – a tradition that dated back to 1880! The very first Woolworths opened in New York city in 1879, when Frank Winfield Woolworth launched his first shop in Utica, in the Mohawk Valley, on 22nd February.
He and his brother Charles went on to open stores across the United States, their success assured by their innovative sales methods of merchandising, direct purchasing and customer services. The practices pioneered by the Woolworth brothers are still in use today in the retail industry.
By putting merchandise on open shelves, customers could browse freely and handle the goods before making a purchase, thus replacing the old-fashioned practice of having a sales assistant get the items from behind the counter.
Christmas at Woolworths
Woolworths sold Christmas decorations for the first time in 1880, when Frank was persuaded to buy a box of cheap baubles to sell in his store. Despite his initial reluctance, he was amazed that they had sold out within just a few hours.
Legend has it that in autumn 1880, a travelling salesman called Bernhard Wilmsen popped in to offer Frank, who was then 28, a batch of Christmas decorations. After a year’s trading, Frank drove a hard bargain and was known as a canny trader. The salesman had a selection of what he called “German glass ornaments” and tinsel for people to decorate their homes at Christmas.
Initially, Frank didn’t think they would go down well with American consumers, because they didn’t actually do anything, so he bought only one case containing almost 150 decorations, on a “sale or return” basis. The decorations sold out rapidly, making him a profit of $4.32 and he soon realised he had found a winning formula.
The following year, he doubled the quantity and the same thing happened again. He had stumbled on the range that came to define his stores.
When Woolworths first opened, the brand was the equivalent of today’s pound shops. They were known as the Great 5¢ Store, selling lots of different items for five cents each. The range of cheap Christmas decorations became a best-seller for more than a century.
Expansion to the UK
As Woolworths expanded across the United States and Canada, operating 596 stores by 1904 to create a business empire, customers loved the colourful baubles in their Christmas range and millions were sold.
Many of the early Christmas decorations were made by artisan craftsmen in Germany and Russia. Working from home, the craftsmen made the festive trinkets all year round to sell in bulk to a Woolworths warehouse for a cash payment on delivery.
By the time Woolworths crossed the Atlantic to open their first UK branch in Liverpool in 1909, Christmas decorations were already a massive part of their range. British shoppers loved them as much as the Americans, as luxury shopping had become affordable for everyone.
At the outbreak of World War I, the supply of Christmas baubles from Germany and Russia was interrupted, but Frank had built up a good knowledge of how they were made. He passed the knowledge on to factories in the US and UK and they continued with the production, also introducing new designs.
Multi-million dollar industry
Between 1880 and 1939, Woolworths sold an estimated five hundred million baubles, most of which had come through Wilmsem, who became a major importer in New York City. In an interview in 1939, Wilmsem, then aged 81, said he had sold Woolworths some $25 million worth of Christmas ornaments over the years.
He ran a factory at the corner of Haegert Street and Jasper Street, where 255 people worked all year round to fulfil the Christmas orders for Woolworths and other stores by the 1930s.
The American factories had invented a new addition to their “finial baubles” – a brightly coloured glass decoration with a candle that was clipped on to the top of the tree to create a touch of magic. Elaborate paper decorations also became popular in the 1920s and 1930s. They unfolded into stars, bells and pom-poms.
The tinsel was sold in metre-long lengths, with thin tinsel selling at a penny a piece and the plush, thicker variety costing three pence each.
A range of “chalkware” was introduced in the 1930s, when gypsum plaster was used to create nativity sets, which were hand painted and varnished. They sold for sixpence each, or an eight-piece set complete with a wooden crib was available for three shillings.
Woolworths became as famous for their Christmas decorations as they were for their other popular ranges. The Woolworth’s Pick ‘n’ Mix was legendary – shoppers were invited to pick the sweets they wanted from a huge range of loose confectionery, to make up a bespoke bag of the candies of their choice.
There was also a record department in every store, plus electrical items, cosmetics, DIY equipment, tools, cards, toys and soft furnishings.
By the late 1970s, Woolworths’ range of Christmas decorations was even more spectacular and included plastic shatterproof ornaments, traditional glass models, foil decorations, corsages, paper chains, lights, crackers and garlands.
Other areas of the store began to struggle against market competitors, but the Christmas sales always boomed, boosted by major TV advertising campaigns.
The lavish 1981 Woolworths’ advert, Have a Cracking Christmas, featured many stars of the day, such as Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie of comedy group The Goodies, actress Anita Harris and actors Don Estelle and Windsor Davies – stars of the sitcom, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
The advert lasted for more than two minutes, which was highly unusual, as most TV ads lasted for only around 30 seconds. It was a mini-musical, with the stars and a full supporting cast showing off the Christmas wares for all the family.
By the 1990s, Woolworths was dependent on its Christmas sales to survive in many areas. A new Christmas advertising campaign was launched in 1998, featuring Keith the Alien, who replaced the long-running adverts featuring stars of the day.
The character was meant to have come from outer space and discovered the “wonder of Woolworths”, the idea being that he would appeal to kids. He was a smash hit with viewers when he first appeared in a commercial on ITV and Channel Four in 1998.
Demise of Woolworths
Sadly, the great Woolworths chain, a high street institution, came to a sudden and unexpected end in 2009. In the 1980s, there had been around 1,000 Woolworths in Britain, but the brand’s final demise came suddenly and decisively, after individual stores had gradually closed over the years.
In 2008, Woolworths went into administration and by 2009, all of its high street branches had closed down. It was claimed that the credit crunch had hastened its demise, but high rent bills were also cited as having contributed.
In 2017, rumours were rife that Woolworths was to reopen after its former director, Tony Page, said in an interview he was still “emotionally attached” to the brand. It was reported that he had contacted Shop Direct, which owned the rights to Woolworths, to ask if they would consider selling the brand. Page told reporters, “If the brand name was available, it would still be a possibility to bring it back.”
However, despite a buzz of excitement at the time, 18 months down the line, there has been no further developments and the wonder of Woolworths remains nothing but a distant memory.
For many of us, few Christmas shopping experiences are quite as magical as a Woolworths Christmas shopping experience used to be… what are your thoughts? Should they bring THE Christmas store back to the high street? How do other retailers compare?
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