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A Shovel-Ready Empire

On This Day

22 February 1878 – Broom in hand, Frank furiously swept the floors of Utica, NY’s “The Great Five Cent Store”. He had failed to keep track of time, and had let the afternoon slip far past the opening time listed on the 2,000 bulletins that had spread its word. Late night preparations and product displays left him behind schedule for the grand opening; the shop was a mess and due to his meticulous and keen eye for visual merchandising he had valued the presentation of the products more than punctuality.


With no time to spare, he improvised the remaining displays from upturned packing crates, concealed by elegantly draped red cloth, a trick he had learned from a previous employer. He swept and laboured as the clock ticked and the day grew old. Late into that winter evening, a woman interrupted his preoccupation with the shop’s disorder; she wanted the fire shovel he had marketed in the bulletin. By no means was this sale an isolated occurrence: many customers visited and purchased items from the 144 products the shop stocked, yet as time passed the air that once filled with customer banter had slowly been replaced with anxiety as interest in the novelty passed.


In a flash, an excruciatingly slow end would follow the botched grand opening, and just two months after its beginning it would cease trading. Surprisingly, Frank was far from disheartened, he penned a set of maxims, learning aids that he would take with him to his next store and within a month of the closure in Utica a new shop would spring forth, this time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. No one besides Frank W. Woolworth himself could have foreseen what was to come from the ashes of Utica, but the lessons learned would prove to be invaluable. To most, the Utica store may have seemed a fluke but in actuality it was the cornerstone and foundation of the Woolworth Empire. In the coming decades, Woolworths would open 3,000 stores across the globe, become a household name and push a consumer landscape offering goods fashioned in the likes of new frontiers.

Born in Rodman, New York, 1852, Frank Winfield Woolworth spent most of his formative years on a farm. Accustomed to intense and painstaking manual labor, he was a natural for hard work. When he was not handling farming tasks, Frank had found joy in retreats to towns and neighboring areas, in particular to feed his fascination with affluence and lavish living. While young he would often retreat to Point Breeze, Joseph Bonaparte's Country Estate in Bordentown, NJ. Perhaps it was then, with this exposure to Bonaparte’s estate and the trinkets of wealth, that Woolworth dreamed of a life far removed from the farm he had been born into.


It was at the age of 20 when Frank began to act upon his desires, pursuing these dreams, and he took a sales position at The Augsbury and Moore Dry Goods Store, one of the finest shops around. Frank treated each day as its own informal education, focusing on the many mechanics of retail practice. With astonishment, Frank found that many of his employers did not value the effects visual merchandising could have on sales. Sales had not been his strength but his intuitive sense of understanding stock display was impressive. He knew times were rough for many and with a little tender love and care, any display paired with an attractive price tag could make a sale. It wasn’t the managers out on the floor selling Mrs. Halloway those shoes, it was Frank’s hat sale and display complimenting the shoes that had pulled her attention.


Though for Augsbury and Moore times were not always good. Near the end of his time at the store, Frank overheard many discussions of closure and poor sales. Out of necessity, the store had a table offering 20-cent items for 5 cents in hopes of clearing stock; Frank noted the success of the bargain, and an idea was born. These years learning the ropes propelled Frank on a path towards a grander goal and vision far outside the sights of shop owners like Augsbury and Moore. This vision was clear in direction, he had not only desired to open his own shop but to expand beyond regional borders and introduce a new form of shopping for goods, a concept foreign to most if not all markets, “The Five and Dime”. This concept would prove to be revolutionary and last nearly a century beyond the Utica, NY shop of 1878, a novelty surpassing a trend.


It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Frank had naturally picked up upon the art of visual merchandising, the presentation of the products was no different than the presentation of self, a game he had been playing since he was young. Frank wanted to advance in social circles, and if he was to reach the ranks of Joseph Bonaparte, he would need to abandon the farm boy persona. This consciousness of social class is where the actions and motivations of the future retail tycoon can be understood.


According to personal accounts given by friends and acquaintances, the authenticity and genuine nature of his character made him hard to dislike, and for every 5 and 10 cents he took from customers, he never offered two cents in exchange. This discreetness accompanied a flattering charm and a farm hand’s work ethic – it was these traits of trust and human connection that established the Woolworths brand. But there was also something Machiavellian in his persona, that while the customer saw agency in their consumer choices, Frank saw the opportunity to exploit deal-seeking customers. The man with humble beginnings was finessing and charming his way to the ranks of retail tycoon by nickel and diming those who assisted him along the way.


Though Frank had reached unparalleled success through retail market opportunism, the creation of the brand and architecture are what made “Woolys” into a cultural phenomenon. With the erection of the self-funded Woolworth Building in 1913, Frank rose amongst the ranks to an international elite.

Despite the banal nature of the shops and the lackluster floorplans, the product was attractive to consumers; in particular it was the practice of deal seeking that became a leisurely pastime for those running errands. From counter to self-service, Woolworth’s layouts were precisely organized based upon consumer behavior and aesthetics consistent throughout the shop. Elegance was not sacrificed.


For customers, the low prices were at first shocking and soon thrilling. They were made possible by removing the middleman and buying directly from vendors, a practice that kept Woolworths a retail force for years to come. In many cases, the price tags sold products themselves. Woolworths popularity had made it a household name in both England and United States and there was a strong similarity between the advertisements on their facades, not only Transatlantically but throughout the ages – the identity of the company remained nearly identical in 2015 as it did when Woolworths opened. And low prices remained a language any buyer could understand.


Its design and layouts incorporated the customer’s desire and needs, it was both a one stop shop for home goods and a hotbed for neighborhood gossip. While the deviant offsprings, the discount stores of today, have broken with the social aspect of Woolworths’ legacy, the bargain hunting of the modern consumer is long established and uncompromising.