Dead Brands: Woolworth 1878 – 1997

Founded in 1878 and officially closed in 1997, Woolworth had a 119 year run as one of the leading retail brands in the world.

Scranton_Store_-_Woolworth_2nd-largerThe brand started with a whimper, failing at its first location in Utica, New York in 1878 as Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store. But, in 1879, using the same sign from the original location, Frank Winfield Woolworth opened a new location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and it became a success, and the start of the Woolworth brand.

From there the brand grew and F.W. Woolworth invited his brother Charles into the business. The two worked to open more locations and, with time and success, became one of the largest retail chains in the world. Woolworth’s is also credited with pioneering many facets of the retail industry through direct sales, merchandising, and even customer service techniques. However, that legacy is rarely discussed today, with the brand having disappeared from sight.

The Woolworth brand started dying in the 1980s, over 100 years after it was founded. By that time competitors in the department store and discount store category had started to gain momentum and market share. Brands like Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target were all doing their best to eat away at Woolworth’s business, and they were succeeding.

Some people are of the opinion that Woolworth got too big as a brand and moved too far away from their five and dime origins. The proof to that theory may be in the brand’s reaction to the Wal-Mart/Kmart/Target competition of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Instead of standing firm and anchoring the brand on their original business model, Woolworth chose to instead focus on specialty stores.

Ultimately the plan failed, and in 1983 the last of the Woolco locations (discount stores) were closed in the United States. As the 90s approached the Woolworth brand was still in decline and in 1993 a restructuring plan was hatched that included closing more than 400 of their 800+ remaining locations. At the same time the brand transitioned their stores in Canada to The Bargain! Shop label, with the last Woolco and Woolworth doors closing in 1994.

Woolco Store Black and White Vintage Photo

Just 3 years later the doors closed for good in the United States, ending the 119 year life of the brand on July 17, 1997.

That failure to stay true to the original brand focus, and in the process turning their backs on their longtime promise to their brand community, looks to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In fact, the Woolworth story is eerily reminiscent of the decisions that Danier Leather made which led to the ultimate failure of their brand as well.

Related: Danier Leather: Another Canadian Brand Fails, But Why?

The lesson should be clear, as a brand you are strongest when you continue to keep the same promise to your brand community that you used to bring them in. When you abandon that, you abandon them – and you open the door to competitors to take your market share, and your brand community members. And then you have nothing.

Check out some of the vintage ads from Woolworth that we found online for one last look at this dead brand.

Vintage Woolworth Party Needs Ad Dead BrandsVintage Woolworth Halloween Ad Dead BrandsVintage Woolworth Doll House Ad Dead BrandsVintage Woolworth Misc Ad Dead BrandsFW_Woolworth_store_Providence_RIF


Joshua Murray

Fuelled by ideas, opportunity and coffee, Joshua attacks the social media landscape every day with a purpose. His experience in retail, customer service and public relations have combined to give him a 360 degree view of social media for brands and he is committed to helping all of his clients leverage their voice in the social sphere.

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