Tuppence a quarter
F. W. Woolworth's High Street stores in the UK stocked a wide range of weigh-out sweets, countlines and boxed chocolates through a century of trading. The idea took shape in the USA in 1886. Today Shop Direct Group continues to offer Pic'n'Mix on-line via the new Woolworths website.
In Summer 1909, as Frank Woolworth searched the UK for locations, his new Buyers had to track down an assortment of boiled sweets, mints, toffees and chocolates to match the American selection. They failed for the first store in Church Street, which stocked Candy from the USA, but had a full selection by the time the next stores opened in London Road, Liverpool and Fishergate, Preston in February 1910. Their mahogany counters were crammed full with sweets in shiny foil wrappers. Pic'n'mix was just two old pence per quarter pound (125g), the equivalent of 6.55p per kg at the time, or 56p per 100g at today's prices.
Shoppers in the early stores marvelled at the selection, cramming bags at the personal service counter, and adding half pound (227g) bars of chocolate for sixpence (2½p) and wafers for tuppence (1p). By 1930 Woolworth had become the dominant sweet shop in Britain and Ireland. It retained the position throughout its life in the High Street. This page explores how it all began.
In the early days the stores sold ice-cream alongside 'weigh-out sweets'. The firm only adopted the customer nickname 'pic'n'mix' in the 1950s, years after it was first used.
At the time most shoppers did not have electricity at home, let alone a freezer. They could buy two sorts of ice-cream. Cones were a treat to eat at once, while 'sandwiches' were slabs of ice-cream between two wafers, which were tightly packed in bleached paper to keep them cold for the journey home. Each store had a special fridge with two sections - 'very cold' for cones and 'arctic' for sandwiches.
The larger stores also sold ice-cream as a desert in their tea bars or restaurants.
Frank Woolworth originally intended to ship sweets from the factories that already supplied him in North America. His team on the ground persuaded him to change his mind after finding that there were more advanced factories in Britain that could supply better sweets at a lower cost price, even without the cost and delay of Transatlantic shipping.
Between July and October 1909, the Woolworths Buyer, William Stephenson, visited many factories, large and small, in search of the right sweets. Before the first store opened its doors he visited Cadbury's at Bournville and agreed occasional specials on their slab chocolate. He also signed up a number of sweet factories and established a range that included Licquorice Allsorts, Chocolates, Toffees, Nougat (known as 'nugget'), Gum Drops and Peppermints. On opening day the store had twenty different varieties, which were all priced at tuppence (1p) per quarter pound, which was the equivalent of about 56p per 100g at today's prices.
Stephenson commissioned one of the firm's china suppliers to make special clip-together porcelian bowls for display. These were made in a factory in Hanley, Staffordshire in the English Midlands. They were placed on the top of a mahogany island counter, which was located in a prominent position near the front of the store. Several different, exclusive sweets were sold under the name Milady. The best sellers were toffee, butterscotch, fudge and raspberry ruffles, which were chocolates with a fondant centre.
'Verity Level-Proof' scales were chosen for the Sweet Counters. They were also used to weigh broken biscuits which were displayed nearby. The stainless steel units featured a set of imperial weights from one pound ('1lb' or about 0.45kg) down to a quarter of an ounce ('¼oz' - 7.08 grams in the metric system). The customer's selection was placed in a chrome-plated scoop. The Assistant then added weights to the other side of the scale. When the two balanced, a diamond-shaped marker pointed exactly to the words 'Correct Weight Here'.
During the life of the scales, as the company grew, between 1909 and 1964 they weighed 9,090,000 pounds of sweets - 4,086 tonnes of them, all by hand, and with the price worked out on a ready reckoner card! "Three ounces madam? That will be a penny ha'penny (1½D or 0.625p) please!"
During the 1910s and 1920s the displays had to be filled up several times a day. Staff served from the centre of the island counter. There were cupboards below the display, called the 'understocks', which kept the reserves close to hand. The assistants had to call the supervisor for the key when they needed more stock.
Larger glass fronted counters were introduced when stores were extended in the late 1920s and 1930s. These had enough space for 28 lbs (12.7 kg) of each variety. On busy days even these had to be topped up at lunchtime!
One side of the counter was used for sweets and the other for biscuits and nuts.
On both sides of the Atlantic, elaborate window displays were used to promote new sweets. In the UK three suppliers dominated the range. They competed for window space, with each offering special fixtures and showcards, knowing that a good feature could boost sales ten-fold. Unknown to customers, the sweets in the window were made of plaster, to save the heat of the sun from melting them. Those people who reached in for a nibble rarely returned for a second helping!
By 1930 UK sales were dominated by Milady sweets. The supplier's recipe, coupled with eye-catching signgage made them a runaway customer favourite.They had proved that shoppers would pay a little more for exotic varities. Most of their sweets were threepence a quarter (£1 per 125g today).
The 'Milady lady' became a regular feature in Woolies' windows. She also appeared on tickets on the counter, which were the only ones to feature colour printing.
Alongside pic'n'mix, Buyers worked with suppliers to develop an enviable range of packaged confectionery. Cadbury led the way with fudge and chocolate candies and later an innovative range of slab chocolate.
Executives followed the techniques perfected by the the Founder to keep suppliers on their toes. By having two sources for each major product, they were able to play one vendor off against the other.
For example the Buyer delighted in telling Cadbury's that while their luxury chocolate was delicious, thrifty shoppers would pick Melba's bars which were better value. Cadbury responded with a three ounce (85g) bar for tuppence (1p) and a window display (right).
Weeks later Melba heard that discerning customers preferred the quality of their arch-rival. They added a fine quality half pound (227g) bar for sixpence (2½p), and a two ounce (57g) budget bar for one penny.
Creating the rivalry between supplier partners helped the chain to hold down the prices in-store as inflation pushed their costs upwards during the Thirties. They had to make economies behind the scenes, or accept a lower margin, to ensure that the firm did not switch its allegiance.
In the Thirties the parent company in the USA experimented using more packaging on their goods. They found that bagged candy was a particularly good seller, that appealed to different shoppers from the weigh-out range. The London Buyers followed the lead and introduced a special fixture to display hanging bags of boiled sweets in 1938. At the time the 'Woolco' own brand name also appeared on haberdashery in Britain and on the German company's gramophone records.
By 1939 Woolworth had established an unrivalled confectionery business, dominating the British market and selling vast quantities of pic'n'mix sweets, chocolate and candy bars and biscuits. Such was the chain's stranglehold on the market that most rivals were forced to keep their sweet prices under sixpence, sacrificing margin to remain competitive. Just a year later the world had changed. The abundant displays had disappeared, as Britain went to war. Find out more in our 1940s and rationing exhibit here in the Woolworths Museum.
Fast links to related content in the Woolworths Museum
Pic'n'Mix and Sweets Gallery