Woolco

Woolco

Woolco was an American-based discount retail chain. It was founded in 1962 in the city of Columbus, Ohio by the F.W. Woolworth Company. It was a full-line discount department store unlike the five-and-dime Woolworth stores which operated at the time. At its peak, Woolco had hundreds of stores in the U.S., as well as in Canada and the United Kingdom. While the American stores were closed in 1983, the chain remained active in Canada until it was sold in 1994 to rival Wal-Mart. Most of the former UK Woolco stores now trade as ADSA Wal-Mart.

History

Creation

The creation of Woolco coincided with the expansion of suburbia. Woolworth's flagship stores were still doing well, but the company wanted to tap into the growing discount department store market without diluting its dominant position in the variety store business.

The first Woolco stores were located on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. By 1966 there were 18 in the United States and nine in Canada. Plans were for 30 stores to be added per year. This led to tremendous growth as over 300 Woolco stores opened up across North America by the mid 1970s.

The company experimented with both Woolco and a more downscale merchandising unit called Worth Mart in the mid 1960s. Woolco was the eventual winner with customers, and the Worth Mart stores were folded into Woolco's store base by the 1970s.

At the outset, Woolco stores were considered by the company to be "promotional department stores," with expanded product lines and other amenities not typically found at namesake Woolworth stores.

Many locations contained Red Grille restaurants (actually a cafeteria style outlet), and the food areas sold popcorn, real milkshakes, and other food.

A number of Woolco stores were opened in the UK in the same period. These were spun off along with the British Woolworths chain in 1982 and subsequently sold by Kingfisher plc to Gateway in 1986 and ASDA Wal-Mart in 1988.

Demise

The typical Woolco store was well over 100,000 square feet, which was quite large for a discount store of that era. Many of its departments were leased to third-party operators, a common practice among early discounters.

Starting in the late 1970s, Woolworth enacted a cost-saving plan for Woolco that included a reduction in floor space for the largest locations, the elimination of most leased departments and an expansion into smaller markets with stores as small as 60,000 square feet. During this period, the excess space in some larger Woolco stores went to a Woolworth-owned off-price clothing retailer called J. Brannam, which was short for "Just Brand Names"

By 1979, it became clear that the earlier cost-saving plan would not be enough to save Woolco from failure, so Woolworth combined the discount store operating unit with its variety stores and began to close stores in unprofitable markets including Chicago.

Closure

Woolco ceased operations in the United States in 1983. However, the Canadian division of approximately 120 stores remained open. In 1990, 26 Woolworth stores in Canada were converted to Woolco because of their larger size. In 1994, in order to repay the $1.7 billion debt incurred from international specialty store expansion, the Woolworth Corporation sold most of the Woolco Canada stores to Wal-Mart Canada. Wal-Mart did not acquire the Woolco stores that were either unionized or had downtown locations. Some Woolco stores were sold and re-opened as Zellers stores.

Canada

In a smaller, less crowded retailing market, Woolco had a bigger impact in Canada than it did in the US. There were 160 stores in Canada at dissolution. They were so well-known that Canadian songwriters Leon Dubinsky and Max McDonald even wrote a popular song called "Working at the Woolco Manager Trainee Blues" (1977). During the 1970s and '80s, the Canadian stores were well-known for their monthly "$1.44 Days", wherein numerous items were sold at a price of $1.44 CAD. Competitors Woodward's & Eaton's ran "$1.49 Days" usually the first Tuesday each month. Some stores also contained an automotive and tire service department.

References

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