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A history of Christmas Cards and Wrapping Paper at Woolworth's

The original series of postcard type Christmas Cards, which were sold in F. W. Woolworth British stores from 1909 until 1918

 

One of a small range of Christmas Cards chosen by the chain's founder, Frank W. WoolworthWoolworth stores first stocked Christmas Cards in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA in 1879, and the 5 & 10¢ had become the market leader before it branched out internationally with its first store in the UK in 1909.

In the early days the stores sold Christmas cards in postcard format, allowing customers to write their own message and add the address. They cost one old penny each (about 0.5p). At the time a postage stamp also cost one penny.

In the UK Woolworths sold cards, wrapping paper, calendars and diaries to five generations of shoppers between 1909 and 2008, outselling every other company in the twentieth century. But in the end the chain's 2009 diary went on to become a highly-prized collectable, for all the wrong reasons.

 

An early colour Christmas card sold in Woolworth stores in the USA. It was printed in London.Frank Woolworth was quick to spot the potential for Christmas products in his American stores, establishing ranges of cards, wrapping paper and decorations in his very first store. He devoted up to a quarter of the space in the chain to 'seasonables' from October onwards. This allowed him to maximise sales throughout the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year festivites. His products were famous for their innovative design and jaw-drop prices.

From 1890 onwards much of the innovation came from regular buying trips to Europe. He found that London and Berlin printers used photogravure techniques to produce colour cards, while Americans were limited to black and white. Between 1895 and 1910 many of the cards sold Stateside were European in origin, making Christmas at the five-and-ten a festival of bright colours.

 

One of the most popular cards in the USA at the turn of the twentieth century featured 'St Nick' and was a modern take on a traditional German design.An original Christmas Card from before World War I, selected by Frank W. Woolworth for his British stores

By 1909 Frank Woolworth delegated most Buying work.But he took a personal interest in the range of cards for his new British stores. He resolved that rather than simply duplicate the most popular lines from North America, like the "Saint Nick" design on the left, the British offer should be "quaint and traditional". The card on the right was one of his selections.

Frank had a great passion for England. He spent time and money to prove his lineage back to the Pilgrim Fathers. He claimed English-descent and believed the name came from an ancestral home in sixteenth century Woolley, Cambridgeshire. He also believed this was why the British nicknamed his company 'Woolies', or perhaps 'Woolley's".

Quaint or not, at one old penny each (about ½p) or 7 for sixpence (2½p) proved to be great sellers !

 

Each year more designs were added to the firm's selection. After the Founder returned to the USA, the Buyers William Stephenson and John Ben Snow were able to include some more up-to-date designs, like the popular World War I favourites that are shown at the top of this web page. Each is over ninety years years old and comes from a private collection.

 

A Woolworths postcard-style Christmas Card from the 1920s

Other popular favourites in the Christmas range included wrapping paper (both with floral designs and more traditional brown paper to send presents through the post), as well as diaries, calendars and gift tags. By the 1920s many of the card designs had a varnished glossy finish. Most came from one of four suppliers, Raphael Tuck & Sons, Alf Cooke & Sons of Leeds, Valentine's and Thomas Hope, Sankey Hudson of Manchester.

Right through into the 1930s prices for basic cards were held down to a single old penny (½p). In the late 1920s the first folded cards and envelopes were put on sale, with the larger and more luxurious single cards selling for 2D each (1p).

Sixteen assorted gift tags for threepence from Woolworths in the 1930s

Mass-marketing policies meant each supplier made lots of items. For example Alf Cooke and Sons made playing cards as well as Christmas Cards, and Thomas Hope, the maker of gummed ring reinforcers, were invited to produce altogether more exotic packs of brightly coloured gift tags (right) for just threepence (1¼p) a pack.

 

Part of the Woolies range of Wrapping Paper, tags and ribbons in the 1930s.


By the 1930s a wide range of brightly coloured wrapping paper and ribbons was offered as Woolworths became established as the destination for Christmas. Success in the 1920s and a policy of ploughing profits back into store openings meant that by 1934 there were 600 stores serving virtually every High Street across the UK and Ireland. The stores drew big crowds, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays, making the Christmas range readily available to virtually every home.

One of the great strengths was offering both budget ranges (with lots of cards or wrap for sixpence - left) and more aspirational products like individual ribbons (below) for sixpence each.

Some of the wide selection of Christmas ribbons available from Woolworths in the 1930s

 

During the 1930s the firm started to sell assortment packs of cards. The illustration below shows that some of the designs remain quite contemporary today and might still appear in a budget box of traditional cards on sale in a value store.

Budget Christmas Cards from Woolworths in the 1930s still look remarkably contemporary today

 

Pre-packed Woolworths Christmas Cards and Tags from the 1930s

 

Some of the multi-packs contained an assortment of cards, gift tags and seals (short pieces of sticky tape).  Selling at sixpence (2½p) each, these provided a complete one-stop shop for anyone wanting to wrap a Christmas present.

Woolworth chartered whole railway trains to deliver supplies of cards and wrapping paper to their stores.  To keep prices down the firm chose mainly British suppliers and took delivery of their season's requirements in the early summer, before the school holidays.  By taking a supplier's first production and paying promptly the Buyers were able to obtain big discounts. Canny suppliers ploughed the proceeds into raw materials to make more stock to sell to smaller companies later in the year.

This type of supplier partnership was one of the ways that Woolworths managed to sell their ranges at lower prices and better margins than most of their smaller rivals.

 

A special Woolworth Christmas card for British and Irish employees in 1940 from Chairman William Lawrence Stephenson

Despite austerity and shortages elsewhere in-stores, Buyers worked with the British Government to secure plentiful supplies of Christmas Cards throughout the Second World War. This goal was to maintain morale on the Home Front, particularly with so many people fighting abroad. The Woolworth Chairman, William Stephenson, split has time between his duties at the retailer and a special role in the Air Ministry, reporting to the media mogul Lord Beaverbrook. The tycoon used his influence to help Stephenson to secure supplies of paper and card. As a quid pro quo prices for cards and basic wrap were held to pre-war levels, despite the rapid inflation of the war years.

The gesture was rewarded by rapid increases in sales of thirty percent or more each year from 1940-3. It also helped to reinforce the retailer's position at the heart of local communities, which helped sustain the brand for many years.

 

A hanging display of calendars above a counter full of Christmas Cards and Wrapping Paper at the newly rebuilt F. W. Woolworth store in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire in 1953

Displays were given an overhaul in the 1950s, with lampshade canopies adapted to allow calendars and gift bows to be displayed above the counters. These were clearly visible from the store front, even though displayed in the middle or rear section of the store.  Bold wall features of single sheets of wrapping paper in the early 1950s gradually made way for folded sheets in flat packs.  Both types are visible in the pictures from Commercial Road, Portsmouth (above).

The first appearance of modern a more gondola type display of Greetings Cards at Woolworths, from the ultra-modern concept store at Cornmarket, Oxford in 1957

1957 saw the introduction of a new way of selling cards. New racks allowed customers to browse, while also releasing space on the walls for new Toys and Homewares. Until this date most Greeting and Christmas Cards had been arranged between glass dividers at a single level on the flat top personal service counters. Experiments with self-service prompted the rethink.

For the first time cards and envelopes were displayed together. The labour-saving idea (which seems obvious now), reduced transaction times. Assistants no longer need to grabble to find the envelope under the counter when the customer went to pay !

This style of display quickly took hold and remains the basic principle in card shops to this day. In 1960 the thousand British and Irish stores sold over a million multiboxes of 12 cards, at prices from one shilling (5p) to two shillings and sixpence (12½p) each.

 

Winfield Crepe Paper from 1964, the year Woolworth introduced its low entry entry price point own-brand range

 

New competition emerged in the 1960s. Woolworth responded with an own brand label for their best value, low-priced products throughout each store. It trialled a few items like the 'Silkyshene' Crepe Paper on the left in 1964. Success meant Winfield branding was used on all Christmas lines from 1965 to 1981.

During the 1960s suppliers were encourage to cut production costs while also keeping their designs up-to-date. They excelled. The modern styling helped to keep Woolworth ahead of its competitors. As sales built, the retailer became increasingly dependent on the 'Golden Quarter' for annual profits. The success of the Christmas range was in marked contrast to some other Winfield products. The own brand included everything from Weedkiller to Perfume! In other areas quality was compromised as production was moved overseas to keep these lines ultra-cheap. But Christmas Cards and Wrapping Paper were the exception. Long-established British suppliers kept quality standards high and built a reputation for excellence.

 

Woolworth Christmas Cards and Wrapping Paper from the 1970s, all carrying the Winfield own brand name

Christmas Cards at the F. W. Woolworth store in Rushey Green, Catford, London in 1983  (Image: with thanks to Mr. Andy Hayzelden)


Success with Christmas Decorations during the Seventies was in marked contrast to other trading, as the chain struggled to reinvent itself, with a barage of diversification initiatives from Catalogue Stores to giant out-of-town hypermarkets. Stateside trading was even more difficult for the Woolworth parent company who, in a bid to fend off debt repayments, sold their controlling interest in the British company to a consortium who had proposed a secret and audacious 'management buy-in' in the Autumn of 1982.

The first challenge facing the new owners was to arrest the decline and turn the business around. The Christmas ranges were identified as a clear area of strength to promote and build on. They gave the range extra space and broadened the product selection to include aspirational products to attract more affluent customers. The move upmarket was reflected in a change of slogan from 'The ever more spectacular Woolworth Christmas Show' in 1983 to 'The real magic of Christmas' in 1984. Customers liked the change and helped sales to continue to grow for the next twenty years.

 

Wrapping paper, gift tags and calendars on sale in the Woolworths Store in Market Place, Kingston-upon-Thames, South West London in 1989. (Image with special thanks to Mr. Andy Hayzelden)

Under the leadership of Geoff (Sir Geoffrey) Mulcahy, Kingfisher nurtured home-grown talent at Woolworths, injecting new strategy and ideas and leaving seasoned Buyers like Roger Stafford, the Cards and Decorations supremo at the firm and a second-generation Woolworth man, to put the theory into practice.

Sheet giftwrap was largely replaced by more fashionable rolls. Character brands were licenced for Christmas Cards and papers, aligned with the offer in the chain's improved ranges of Toys, Video Films and Ladybird Clothing. Self-adhesive gift tags largely replaced the older gummed variety, while pop calendars added a touch of the exotic above bold, prominent displays of cards and decorations in solid-red packaging in the middle of the store. Calendar displays were duplicated in the Entertainment department at the store-front.

Woolworths expertise was shared with the chain's increasingly successful sister company B&Q (the market-leading DIY store), and with Superdrug. Both chains extended their range of decorations, cards and wrapping paper, often from the same suppliers. Despite this Woolworths retained the leading market share and was even confident enough to offer charity cards without taking a margin.

 

Christmas displays at the Woolworths store in Downham, Bromley, Kent in 1999

During the 1990s Woolworths stores faced increased competition and, for the first time in over eight years, this started to hit sales of Cards. A series of strategies were enacted during the decade aimed to reduce the firm's dependence on the eight week trading period running up to Christmas. These enjoyed only limited success, and the so-called 'Golden Quarter' remained make or break.

In the main the competitive threat came not from traditional rivals like WHSmith, Marks and Spencer and Philip Green's resurgent BhS, but from new entrants to the market. The squeeze came both from supermarkets who found the higher margins of general merchandise attractive compared with groceries, and from DIY Stores and Garden Centres seeking ways to improve their returns in the traditional low-season of dark nights and cold weather. Woolworths responded with improved value and a market-leading offer of character brands, narrowly retaining the upper hand.

 

 

Part of the range of Christmas Cards from Woolworths Christmas Catalogue 2003
Kingfisher's plan to deal with the supermarket threat - an agreed merger with Asda in 1999 - collapsed at the eleventh hour, ultimately resulting in the decision to demerge all of their non DIY businesses.

By 2002 the High Street chain had new Directors, with very different ideas about how to take the brand into the third millennium. Their goal for the Christmas ranges was to make them more stylish and aspirational as part of a move into 'Kids and Celebrations'.

 

The Woolworths range of Christmas Cards in 2006 from the Big Red Book Catalogue. The threepenny and sixpenny stores, once famous for their value, were now promoting 'extra special handmade cards' at five for three pounds and most items at four pounds - better quality but four times the price of the pound shops and twice the supermarket price

The new management amplified the changes made by Kingfisher during the Eighties and Nineties, making the cards and wrapping paper more stylish and elegant. But they also cut back at their cheaper end of the range.

In parallel their Kids and Celebrations Strategy saw major changes to the layout of stores, with strong pressure to reduce the amount of movement between one season and another. The overall strategy resulted in an increased spend per customer but reduced the appeal of the brand for older customers and people who did not have children. The number of regular shoppers fell by two million per week between 2002 and 2005. Poor trading results saw an increasing level of turnover both at the chain's Head Office in London and in store and regional management, with disgruntled workers snapped up by rival companies keen to extend their offers of General Merchandise, particularly in the seasonal areas.

To compound the problem, the move up-market paved the way for rivals to launch lower-priced budget ranges of cards and wrapping paper, undercutting Woolworths. Where once the High Street stores had consistently offered the lowest price anywhere, now customers chose the brand for style and design, while supermarkets and a new generation of 'pound' value stores stepped in the lower end of the market.

 

Days from disaster, the final Woolworths store to open - Bitterne near Southampton, in October 2008, offering LOW PRICE EVERYTHING across the new WorthIt! Christmas range. Days later it was gone.

 

The error was finally tackled in 2006 with a new, exceptional value low-priced range called WorthIt!. But this came too late. In 2006/7 Stocks were too low and sold out in hours, showing the potential for a bolder buy. But, despite offering the best-ever range at Christmas 2008, with style and design at lower prices than the pound shops, mounting debts and an international economic crisis forced the chain into Administration at the start of the peak trading period. Efforts to rescue the store chain came to nothing with turmoil in the markets and the Administrator closing out the stores just forty days later.

 

Fortunately, just weeks after the stores closed, Deloitte was able to announce the sale of the brand to the well-respected Shop Direct Group. The much-loved Woolworth name, if not the High Street shops, survives to fight another day and to earn the loyalty of a sixth generation of British customers. Shop Direct has built an enviable portfolio of brands and has demonstrated the alchemy required to take big names, reshape them for the Internet and to put them back on course. But in the meantime the ultimate irony has to be that every single Christmas Card, packet and roll of wrapping paper, calendar and diary that the chain had in stock sold out at full price. The Saturday after the Administration hit the news was largest trading day the High Street chain had ever seen. Perhaps sadder still is the occasional appearance of one of the firm's 2009 diaries - the year when the stores would have marked a hundred years in the High Street - for sale on eBay as a collectable, turned up to the entry reminding customers to buy a new Woolies diary for 2010.

An appointment with destiny - a Woolworths Diary for 2009 reminds customers to stock on a 2010 model in their local branch. Sadly there was not one branch anywhere in the UK by 6 January 2009.

Shortcuts to related content in the Woolworths Museum

Christmas Gallery

A Century of Decorations    Cards and Wrap   In and out the Windows    Jukebox

Christmas Catalogues    Advertising   The Last Noel

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