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The F. W. Woolworth Company (often referred to as Woolworth's) was a retail company that was one of the original Americanmarker five-and-dime stores. The first Woolworth store was founded, with a loan of $300, in 1879 by Frank Winfield Woolworth. Despite growing to be one of the largest retail chains in the world through most of the 20th century, increased competition led to its decline beginning in the 1980s. The chain went out of business in 1997, when the company decided to focus on the Foot Locker division and renamed itself Venator Group. By 2001, the company focused exclusively on the sporting goods market, changing its name to the present Foot Locker Inc ( ).

Retail chains using the Woolworth name survive in Germanymarker, Austriamarker, Mexicomarker, and South Africa, and, until the start of 2009, in the United Kingdommarker. The similarly-named Woolworth's supermarkets in Australia and New Zealandmarker are operated by Woolworths Limited, a separate company with no historical links to the F.W. Woolworth Company or Foot Locker, Inc. However, this company did take the name from F. W. Woolworth as it had global appeal.


Door handle of a mid-20th century Woolworth store.


The F.W. Woolworth Co. was among the first five-and-dime stores, which sold discounted general merchandise at fixed prices, usually five or ten cents, undercutting the prices of other local merchants. Woolworth, as the stores popularly became known, was one of the first American retailers to put merchandise out for the shopping public to handle and select without the assistance of a sales clerk. Earlier retailers had kept all merchandise behind a counter, and customers presented the clerk with a list of items they wished to buy.After working in a dry goods store in Watertownmarker, New Yorkmarker, Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first Woolworth’s store in Uticamarker, New York, in 1878, but the store failed within a year. However, a second store he opened on June 21, 1879 in Lancastermarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, became a success. Frank Woolworth brought his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth into the business, and together they opened more stores, often in partnership with other business associates. The Woolworth brothers also entered into partnerships with “friendly rivals” to maximize inventory purchasing power for both parties.

Rise and expansion

The Woolworth Building, New York, New York, c.
In 1910, Frank Woolworth commissioned the construction of the Woolworth Buildingmarker in New York Citymarker. This building was entirely paid for in cash. It was completed in 1913 and was the tallest building in the world until 1930. It also served as the company’s headquarters until it was sold by the F.W. Woolworth Company’s successor, the Venator Group (now Foot Locker), in 1998.

By 1911, there were six chains of affiliated stores operating in the United States and Canadamarker. That year, Frank and Charles incorporated the F. W. Woolworth Company and through a merger brought all 596 stores together under one corporate entity. One of the "friendly rival" predecessor chains included several stores initially opened as Woolworth & Knox stores starting as early as September 20, 1884 as well as S. H. Knox & Co. 5 & 10 Cent Stores opened after an 1889 buyout by his cousin, Seymour H. Knox I. Knox's chain grew to 98 U.S. and 13 Canada stores by the time of the corporate consolidation in 1911. Fred M. Kirby added 96 stores, Earle Charlton added 35, Charles Sumner Woolworth added 15, and William Moore added 2.

The stores eventually incorporated lunch counters after the success of the counters in the first store in the UK in Liverpool and served as general gathering places, a precursor to the modern shopping mall food court. A Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina became the setting for a significant event during the civil rights movement .

The Woolworth's concept was widely copied, and five-and-ten-cent stores (also known as five-and-dime stores or dimestores) were a fixture in American downtowns through the 1960s, and became anchors for suburban strip malls by the mid 1970s. Criticisms that five-and-dime stores drove local merchants out of business would repeat themselves in the early 21st century, when big box discount stores became popular. However, many five-and-dime stores were locally owned or franchised, as are many dollar stores today.

In the 1960s, the five-and-dime concept evolved into the larger discount store format. In 1962, Woolworth's founded a discount chain called Woolco. This was the same year as its competitors opened similar retail chains that sold merchandise at a discount: the S.S. Kresge Company opened Kmart; Dayton's opened Target; and Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Martmarker store.

By Woolworth’s 100th anniversary in 1979, it had become the largest department store chain in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.


Woolworth's expanded aggressively with specialty store acquisitions. In 1963, Woolworth purchased the Kinney Shoe Corporation and operated it as a subsidiary. That led to specialty shoe store expansion, including Stylco in 1967, Susie Casuals in 1968, and Foot Locker in 1974.

Woolworth also diversified its portfolio of specialty stores in the 1980s. By 1989, the company was pursuing an aggressive strategy of multiple specialty store formats targeted at enclosed shopping malls. These included Richmond Brothers, Afterthoughts, Northern Reflections, and Champs Sports.

The idea was that if a particular retail concept failed at a given mall, the company quickly could replace it with a different one. The Canadian division administered the stores but most of them existed in the US. The company's purported goal was to operate 10 various specialty stores in each major American shopping mall, but this never came to pass as Woolworth never was able to develop that number of successful specialty retail formats. This activity, however, did lead to the development of the successful Foot Locker and Northern Reflections apparel shops, as well as Best Of Times, a timepiece retailer.

In 1989, Woolworth purchased Champs Sports, leading to the development of the Woolworth Athletic Group which would become critical to the company's future.


The growth and expansion of the company contributed to its downfall. The Woolworth company moved away from its five-and-dime roots and placed less emphasis on its department store chain as it focused on its specialty stores. But the company was unable to compete with other chains that had eroded its market share. While it was a success in Canadamarker, the Woolco chain closed in the United States in 1983. On October 15, 1993, Woolworths embarked on a restructuring plan that included closing half of its 800-plus general merchandise stores in the United States and converting its Canadian stores to a closeout division named The Bargain! Shop. Woolco and Woolworth survived in Canada until 1994, when the majority of its stores there were sold to Wal-Martmarker. Stores that were not purchased by Wal-Mart were converted to The Bargain! Shop stores.


Still with the decline of the signature stores, Woolworth marched on with a new focus toward athletic goods on January 30, 1997, acquiring the mail-order catalogue athletic retailer Eastbay.

On July 17, 1997, Woolworths closed its remaining department stores in the U.S. and changed its corporate name to Venator. In that same year, Wal-Mart replaced Woolworths as a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Analysts at the time cited the lower prices of the large discount stores and the expansion of supermarket grocery stores – which had begun to stock merchandise also sold by five-and-dime stores – as contributors to Woolworth's decline in the late 20th century.

In 1999, Venator moved out of the Woolworth buildingmarker in New York Citymarker to offices on 34th Street. On October 20, 2001, the company changed names again; this time, it took the name of its top retail performer and became Foot Locker, Inc. Foot Locker stores chiefly sell athletic clothing and footwear.

Greensboro sit-in

On February 1, 1960, four African-American students sat down at a segregated lunch counter in a Greensboromarker, North Carolinamarker Woolworth's store. They were refused service, touching off six months of sit-ins and economic boycotts that became a landmark event in the U.S. civil-rights movement. In 1993, an eight-foot section of the lunch counter was moved to the Smithsonian Institutionmarker and a civil rights museummarker is now planned at the store site.

Non-American retail users of the Woolworth name

A Woolworths store in the UK


See also


  1. Dime Stores/Woolworth's | St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture | Find Articles at
  3. - Woolworths strong

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