Retail chains using the Woolworth name survive in the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and South Africa. The similarly-named Woolworth's supermarkets in Australia and New Zealand are operated by Woolworths Limited, a separate company with no historical links to the F. W. Woolworth Company or Foot Locker, Inc.
By 1911, there were six chains of affiliated stores operating in the United States and Canada. 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 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 (see below).
The Woolworth's concept was widely copied, and five-and-ten-cent stores (also known as five-and-dime stores) 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, Woolworths 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 Company opened Target; and Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart 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 also diversified its portfolio of specialty stores in the 1980s, including Afterthoughts, Northern Reflections, and Champs Sports. By 1989, the company was pursuing an aggressive strategy of multiple specialty store formats targeted at enclosed shopping malls. 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 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.
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 Canada, 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-Mart. Stores that were not purchased by Wal-Mart were converted to The Bargain! Shop stores.
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 on 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 building in New York City 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.
On February 1, 1960, four African-American students sat down at a segregated lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina 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 Institution.