Christmas Decorations for seven generations
The salesman wanted to sell German glass ornaments for people to decorate their homes at Christmas. Woolworth responded that Americans would not waste money on them because they didn't 'do' anything. In the end he bought one case of 144 decorations, insisting on sale or return terms.
Much to his surprise, the decorations sold out in under a day, generating a profit of $4.32, or 3¢ each. Frank ordered twice as much for the following year, and sold out again. He had found a winner. It seemed that customers loved the idea of Christmas Decorations. Every one was hand-blown by a German craftsman in an area that is part of Russia today.
To push home the advantage Frank Woolworth channeled most of his orders through a single supplier, the main importer in New York City, who was a gentleman by the name of Mr Wilmsem. It is estimated that total sales between 1880 and 1939 exceeded a staggering five hundred million individual baubles! In 1939, at the age of 81 Mr Wilmsem recalled his first meeting with Frank in the early 1880s, saying
By the time Frank went international with a store in Liverpool, England, the decorations were such an important part of the offer that they featured in the advertisement for the store's opening on 5 November 1909.
Although fancy decorations for the Christmas tree were already fashionable in Edwardian high society, they were too expensive for ordinary people. Woolworth's changed that overnight, bringing the price down from two to five shillings (10-25p) to just one old penny each (the equivalent of ½p at the time, or about 35p today). The ornaments were best sellers.
Local Buyers used the same makers in rural Germany as headquarters in New York. They devised a plan to reduce the cost still further by handling the ornaments more efficiently. Englishman William Stephenson suggested that consignments bound for New York should be shipped from Germany to Hull, transported along the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and then sent across the Atlantic from Liverpool. This route was faster and cheaper, and the British could draw from the stock when the goods reached the docks near their first store.
Families made the decorations all year-round, often in their own homes. Stocks were accumulated in wicker baskets and then taken by horse and cart to the five and ten's purpose-built warenhausen (warehouse) in Sonneberg, Germany where Woolworth's paid cash on the nail. The retailer employed packers to wrap the decorations neatly and load them into boxes before they were shipped.
Some designs, like the bells and bulbs, remain fashionable today. But other classics have vanished from 21st Century packs, perhaps because they would be hard to make by machine. For example miniature glass trumpets and tiny glass guitars, which were very fragile, were Edwardian children's favourites. Before the First World War they were sold for just one penny each, or 12 for ten pence (4p at the time, or £1.75 today).
In 1914 Frank Woolworth got caught behind enemy lines. After a routine buying trip, he had taken his family on holiday to Paris and on to Switzerland. He had dismissed speculation about a War and was taken by surprise at the speed of the German invasion of France.
For the next four years the supply line to Europe was broken. U-boats threatened transatlantic shipping, and many of the factories stood idle after their workers were called up for service in the German or Russian Army. On his return to America, Frank Woolworth showed local factories how to make the ornaments, drawing on what he had learnt in Europe. The Buyers in Britain found sources closers to home, opting for simpler designs and enjoying success with multi-coloured beads from a jewellery supplier.
A new design proved a big hit at Woolworth's. The 'finial bauble', a special decoration for the top of the tree, became a must-have. This glass design clipped over the top branch and provided a colourful tree ball, with a slot on top for a candle. Before homes had electricity this provided a novel way of lighting the tree ... and sometimes burning the house down !
During the 1920s elaborate paper decorations became popular. These unfolded into bells, fancy pom-pom balls or stars. The stores also sold individual metre-long lengths of tinsel, with a thin design for a penny and a 'plush garland' for threepence (about 1¼p then, about £1.05 each today).
Every store featured a large, eye-catching display on a wall near the front. By 1929 they were sent photographs from HQ to ensure that these were 'picture pefect' !
As the British chain grew, it was important to maintain consistency between the stores. A growing army of regional and national managers published detailed instructions of how things were to be done. Each store had a Superintendent (Area Manager) who visited regularly. His job was to ensure that staff looked smart in their maroon uniforms, the counters were full and tidy, and that floors were swept. Everything had to be scrupulously clean.
This discipline of operation, which is commonplace in big chains today, was rare at the time. It helped Woolworth to expand rapidly. Whether a shopper visited a store on the West Coast of Ireland or in Central London, the layout, prices and ambience of the store were very similar, even if the branch was a different size.
One of the most popular innovations of the 1930s was the introduction of elegant nativity sets made from 'Chalkware'. Sculpted gypsum was set in moulds and then hand painted with water colours before being glazed with varnish. The individual figures sold for sixpence each, or the full set of eight with a stable made of dark-stained plywood sold for three shillings (15p at the time, equivalent to about £12.60 today). Each figure was quite heavy and brittle, but thanks to the glaze many survive in vivid original colours to this day.
For ten years from 1929 there was a key difference between the British and American Woolworth stores. The US parent company phased out its ten cent price limit in three stages up to 1933. The move was forced by new US labour regulations that set a minimum wage and a maximum working week. Without the constraint the stores in North American were able to introduce a raft of new products that had previously been too expensive. By 1939 their best seller was a string of nine electric bakelite tree lights for eighty-five cents, seventeen times the previous limit !
In Britain the management was determined to keep prices under sixpence. By 1934 the six hundred-strong store base gave them the muscle to force suppliers to keep cost prices down or lose orders. Even when raw material prices started to rise from 1936 as Britain started to re-arm, most Woolworth cost prices were held.
To maintain profits the stores promoted items like paper chains and garlands which had higher margins. These were used to dress the stores and make the salesfloors look festive, in marked contrast to the lavish electronic and cellulose displays across the Atlantic.
By Christmas 1939 there was an even starker contrast. Britain was at war with Germany. The shelves were unusually empty. A small catalogue was circulated showing customers how to make do and mend, and how to recognise enemy aircraft and military insignia. The USA was enjoying a period of prosperity and was neutral in the early years of the war. The stores went into Christmas in confident mood, with their first full-colour catalogue, which promoted the latest innovations and notions for all the family.
In the UK during the war, despite shortages and rationing, great efforts were made to stock a few Decorations, as a morale-booster. These were made from paper and cardboard rather than precious metal or glass. Crepe Paper was the best seller. The pack showed shoppers how to make their own garlands and paper flowers. Woolworth also sold packs of gummed, coloured paper to make paper chains. People remember that the wartime cow gum glue tasted horrible!
Rapid price inflation made the sixpenny price limit untenable in 1940. It was dropped temporarily but never reinstated.
Some retired managers returned to work, covering for those called up for war service. A popular party trick for these worldly-wise men was to show shoppers how to make a simple Christmas tree or decoration from a sixpenny pack of pipe cleaners. Necessity became the mother of invention.
In an ironic twist, shortly after the USA joined World War II, American bombers destroyed the F. W. Woolworth warenhausen in Sonneberg, (which had been taken over by the Germans as a munitions store). This ended its long service as a source of blown glass decorations. After the war new boundaries placed most of the people who had made them in the Soviet Union, prompting the New York Buyer to find new sources in occupied Japan.
From 1946 until 1955 the British, German and North American stores all stocked a Far East range in the same packaging. In ordinary times each Country insisted on its own look.
As life returned to normal in the early 1950s after post-war austerity measures were relaxed, Woolworth enjoyed an unrivalled period of prosperity. Without an upper price limit the Buyers were free to build more elaborate ranges. But they made a particular point of pricing seasonal products like Christmas Decorations very competitively, and where possible identifying items that could still be sold for the traditional prices of threepence and sixpence. The display from the new superstore in Commercial Road, Portsmouth (above) shows the breadth of items available, with snow globes, paper and foil decorations still sixpence each and miniature nine inch Christmas Trees for one shilling and sixpence (7½p). Decorations, cards, wrapping paper and calendars were so popular that for the eight weeks before Christmas lampshades and some home ranges were removed from sale to make way for elaborate hanging displays of foil and paper decorations that were sold flat-packed from the counters underneath.
During the 1950s the emergence of man-made fibres and plastic revolutionised the design of Decorations. Many of the lines stocked in Britain were mass-produced by factories in Hong Kong. and were labelled 'Empire Made'.
Little by little prices crept upwards as larger items were added to the range. Where once Woolworth had stocked only miniature trees, they now offered artificial trees in heights of up to eight feet (2.4m). These were made of a new nylon fabric and were made by the same factory that produced Woolworth loo brushes!
In the late 1950s and early 1960s one of the surprise winners out of the plastic novelties made in Hong Kong was 'Santa's Candy Flyer' (above), consisting of two reindeer pulling santa and his sleigh. According to the box the kit contained a Jolly Santa, 4 Plastic Toys, 2 Prancing Reindeer and a sleigh with a container of candy pops. This type of item, which could be made and transported from the factory to the stores cheaply, offered a good margin and generated strong sales.
By the late 1970s Woolworths had assembled a spectacular range of Christmas decorations, with plastic shatterproof ornaments alongside traditional glass models, corsages, foil decorations, paper chains, crackers, lights and garlands. While other areas of the store struggled against increasing competition, Christmas sales rocketed, boosted by wall-to-wall television advertising.
It wasn't until Paternoster (Kingfisher) bought the business in 1982 and used learning from Woolworths to develop a range of Christmas decorations at B&Q, that the High Street stores faced very much competition at the budget end of the market. During the 1980s, following B&Q's example, most DIY stores and Garden Centres launched more substantial Christmas ranges.
Under the new owners the Christmas range was enhanced. New display principles and garland canopies added a spectacular finishing touch and established a strong Christmas atmosphere in the stores. The product range was updated but kept price-competitive. The moves helped to head off increased competition from out of town. Sales volumes continued to grow despite the closure of the two hundred largest branches, which were sold off piecemeal for redevelopment. Over the following nineteen years the display principles remained largely unchanged. It was considered a proven formula that helped to exhibit the foil decorations, baubles and garlands to advantage. It also provided a highly visible beacon to guide customers to the Christmas Decorations counter at the back of the store. The product selection was adjusted each year, with a major refresh and new packaging every third or fourth year.
The Eighties reshaping of the Woolworth offer, known as 'Operation Focus', helped to revive the fortunes of the chain. The new look boosted customer numbers throughout the year, particularly at Christmas. By the 1990s virtually the entire annual profit was made in the six weeks leading up to the big day. Directors worried that if they ever 'messed up' Christmas the chain could make a loss.
From 1990 to 1994 there was a concerted campaign to become less dependent on Christmas, and to deal with new threats from discount retailers like Wilkinson who had started to undercut the High Street stores. Prices were lowered - except in the seasonal decorations and cards departments.
As part of a shake-up the Board redeployed their long-serving Buyer of Cards and Decorations, Roger Stafford, a second generation Woolworth Man. Like his father before him, he had started in the stores and worked his way up to the buying role. Father and son had provided continuity to the business for many years. Stafford's new job was to help the chain to implement EPOS tills, getting barcodes on all the products and amending working practices to exploit new item level sales data.
As many senior managers focused on EPOS, a less experienced team had to manage the set up for Christmas 1994. Mistakes were made causing a sharp dip in profits, mutterings at the parent company's Annual General Meeting and a big shake-up in the Boardroom.
To stop the rot, a much loved former Director Roger Jones was recalled from retirement as MD. He put Stafford in charge of Christmas planning for the business as a whole. The two men drove a remarkable recovery with profits topping £100m for the first time in 1997.
But while better retail disciplines behind the scenes and a catchy new television campaign featuring 'Keith the Alien' searching presents from the store on the night before Christmas and dressing his spaceship with Woolworths' popular tree lights was able to improve the fortunes of the brand as a whole, the traditional Christmas range was now under threat.
Increased competition started to challenge Woolworths' supremacy on budget decorations. DIY stores and Garden Centres found the ranges a useful space-filler in their low season, while supermarkets wanted a share of the lucrative market. The response from a succession of new Buyers at Woolworths was to make their ranges more fashionable, enhancing the designs, improving the packaging and featuring colour themes and the same popular character brands that appeared on Ladybird Clothing, Chad Valley Toys and the latest video releases.
New higher-priced items like giant snow globes and packs of 200 'chasing' lights that flashed in complex sequences proved a big hit in the chain's out-of-town Big W stores which emerged in 1999 and in the more affluent High Street and City Centre locations. The approach avoided a head-to-head confrontation with the supermarkets, but did little to tackle the increased competition from Wilkinson, Argos and Poundstretcher.
Following the chain's demerger from Kingfisher in 2002, the move up-market accelerated. After fifty years the garland canopies which had been used to show off the foil decorations, baubles and garlands with withdrawn. The new management put the decision down to health and safety and changing customer tastes, although the removal of most decorations in-store was primarily a cost-saving exericse. Somehow, for old hands, it seemed part of the Christmas magic had disappeared. When sales declined the view was that this was because the decorations should be at the front rather than the back of the store, ignoring the way the canopies had acted as a beacon to draw customers to the range.
To the credit of the 21st Century Buyers, despite their relative inexperience, they followed the brief well. They built a fashionable and elegant new range of trees and decorations. These innovations will continue to brighten homes across the UK for years to come.
Reindeer and sleigh lights to hang outdoors on window sills and chimneys were particularly popular. But they were a far cry from the budget lines of earlier times.
Poor profit performance for the store chain after the demerger prompted executives to reconsider the Kids and Celebrations strategy that had been launched by the new CEO, Trevor Bish-Jones in 2002. Directors and Consultants wondered whether perhaps the chain had moved too far upmarket or needed a major re-think. In the end they concluded that the new ranges weren't the problem - it was just that they were not the whole solution. There was no reason why the chain could not stock fashionable upmarket lines AND offer a budget selection to rival the supermarkets and a new threat from growing number of Pound Shops. The chain's new Commercial Managing Director Tony Page, who joined from Asda, evangelised a new value range called WorthIt! In 2007 he tested the idea on basic Christmas Decorations, reintroducing some of the foil designs, tinsel and plastic baubles of earlier times. The range was a sell-out, and store colleagues were excited in Spring 2008 when they saw previews of a much larger range of WorthIt! decorations for the chain's hundredth Christmas.
As the sample pages from the Woolworths Big Red Book catalogue show, the High Street chain had finally come full circle, offering a three foot (0.85m) Christmas Tree for £2, a little under the original price of a three inch (7.5cm) model in 1909 and a twist garland for 20p, in equivalent terms about half of the penny price when the doors first opened in 1909.
Customers and store colleagues were delighted with the new season's value range when they started putting it on sale in October 2008. The WorthIt! products only got a limited show in the trimmed down version of the Big Red Book catalogue (which was intended to be the last of the line). The reduced page space was because most of the cheap items were only intended for sale in-store rather than on the website. Despite much larger orders than the previous year, stocks started to sell out within days of going on sale.
Just weeks later, as the business prepared for the peak month's trading in December, news broke that the chain's bankers had refused to extend their credit amidst the turmoil of a global economic crisis later called the 'credit crunch'. Customers flocked to the stores in huge numbers, giving the busiest day's trading ever the following morning. The first rangeto sell out was every tree, decoration, card, calendar and diary that the stores could muster - cheap or expensive, elegant or down-right naff. The counters were stripped bare, with every Christmas item sold at full price.
Sadly WorthIt! and the revival of interest in the High Street brand had come too late to save the venerable 99 year old retailer's stores. Less than forty days after going into Administration the shutters fell in the High Street for the last time. The brand itself 'ascended' to the Internet, thanks to the rescue by respected Shop Direct Group. Today Woolworths continue to offer a great selection of decorations and Christmas goodies on-line, building on a tradition that all started with a single glass decoration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA more than 130 years ago. When you shop at woolworths.co.uk, you follow in the footsteps of seven generations, who know that Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Woolworths.