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This Month in Business History

What Can You Get for a Nickel?

The Pictorial News Company, NY. [View of Woolworth Building and surrounding buildings, New York City] c1913. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

It was 1878 and Frank Winfield Woolworth was working in a general store. The 5-cent merchandise table was set up and staffed by Frank. As he assisted the customers that crowded around the table, Frank resolved to start a store of his own stocked only with 5-cent merchandise.1

By June, 1879 Frank Winfield Woolworth was on his way to make history. He opened his first store in Utica, New York. Though he tried, this first attempt was a failure. Frank did not give up and tried again, this time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania too much success! As the popularity of the 5-cent merchandise grew, Frank added a selection of 10-cent merchandise. This new selection went over quite well and Frank began opening more stores.

In February of 1905 the "F. W. Woolworth & Company" was formally incorporated. In 1909 Frank Woolworth took his stores international opening a chain of stores in England which he referred to as his "Three and Sixes" stores (three and sixpence being the closest currency equivalent to five cents and ten cents).2

The Woolworths corporate office building in New York was completed in 1913. Standing 792 feet tall it was the tallest building in the world until 1929. Today it is still one of the 50 tallest buildings in the United States.3

Expansion began and in Frank merged his stores with 5 other retailers, most of which were former partners, in 1912. This merger brought the total number of stores to 596 operating in 37 states. Expansion continued on the international front as well. By 1914 there were 44 stores in the British Isles,4 then stores opened in Germany (1926), Cuba (1924), Mexico and South America (1954). Stores with the Woolworth name, but no legal connection appeared in Australia (Woolworth Limited) and in 1974 the F.W. Woolworth & Co (Cyprus) Ltd. Was formed and by agreement was able to retain the use of the Woolworth name. More acquisitions expanded the Woolworth Corporation beginning with the Kinney Shoe Corporation (1963), Stylco (1967), Susie Casuals (1968), and Footlocker (1974).

On the decline

Over time the revenue from the Woolworth's stores diminished as competition from other discount retailers grew and in 1997 the F.W. Woolworth Corp. closed all remaining stores in the United States. According to the 10-K filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for the fiscal year ending January 31, 1998, the Woolworth Corporation remained active in the following businesses:

  • Athletic Group: included Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker, Champs Sports, and Eastbay, Inc.
  • Northern Group: consisting of 827 stores in the United States and Canada offering the private label apparel brands of Northern Reflections, Northern Getaway, Northern Elements, and Northern Traditions.
  • Specialty Footwear: consisting of Kinney Shoes and Colorado
  • Other Specialty businesses: Afterthoughts, The San Francisco Music Box Company, and 20 Burger King franchises.

The company today

Woolworth Corporation became Venator Group on June 12, 1998. In 2001 the company completed the disposition of all non-athletic businesses, keeping just the Athletic Group, and changed the corporate name to Foot Locker, Inc.

Foot Locker, Inc. today has 3,129 stores in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as of February 2020.5

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Notes

  1. F.W. Woolworth, Co. Celebrating 60 years of an American institution: A history of the enterprise that made America’s nickels and dimes buy more. [New York, Lord & Thomas, c1939] P. 4 Back to text
  2. F. W. Woolworth Co. (1979). 100th anniversary, 1879-1979. Back to text
  3. Cass Gilbert Society, Woolworth Building, New York http://www.cassgilbertsociety.org/works/nyc-woolworth-bldg/ External Back to text
  4. Plunkett-Powell, Karen (1999). Remembering Woolworth’s: A nostalgic history of the World’s most famous five-and-dime. St. Martin’s Press: New York. p. 111-112. Back to text
  5. Foot Locker, Inc. Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended February 1, 2020, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. https://www.sec.gov/ix?doc=/Archives/edgar/data/850209/000085020920000007/fl-20200201x10k.htm Back to text