There was always something quite unique and charming about the old stores of the past. In a world which became consumed by the Target’s and Walmart’s, a shift came to the retail landscape. Some believe we are again sitting on the edge of yet another shift, one which may come in a form that we do not expect. But, before we experience another, let’s take some time to reminisce, and remind ourselves that it wasn’t really all that long ago, when the retail experience was a whole lot simpler!
Since the early 1900’s millions of wide-eyed youngsters and their parents would arrive at a single store, in various locations across the land to shop for toys, treats and general merchandise. Practical items for the home, like tin dustpans, biscuit cutters, tea kettles and soaps. Items like tack hammers and garden tools. Personal items like purses and jewelry. Novelties like baseballs, paper dolls, police whistles, playing cards and Toostie Rolls. The five-and-dime stores were stocked full with a variety of merchandise lining their aisles and counters.
And if you were hungry, many stores would even have lunch counters offering everything from sandwiches and Frito pie to ice cream. Some of the larger stores would even sell frozen foods and fresh produce.
For these stores, five-and-dime wasn’t just a clever name or a way to denote the inexpensive merchandise held within, but it was an actual representation of the store’s rigid pricing policy. A nickel or dime would actually buy any item in the store. These variety stores were classic locations, filled with rich character and superior customer service.
The thought of these stores, for those old enough to remember them, conjure up strong memories of nostalgia.
Variety stores and five-and-dime’s, became a sensation across the country beginning in the early 20th century. Many followed the Woolworth’s model of reducing store overhead by simplifying the duties of sales clerks. Today they are still found all over the world. Although, not in the number that they once were.
Frank Winfield Woolworth borrowed $300 from the bank and opened up his first store in upstate New York. This particular store would see limited success, but it wouldn’t be the end of the story for Woolworth. He would open his next store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he expanded his prices from 5 cent items to 10 cent items, arising from a concept he came up with a year earlier. As part of the plan he would load a counter with a hodgepodge of nickel-priced items popular with price-conscious customers.
The name of Frank Woolworth would grow and so would his stores. Woolworth’s, however, wouldn’t be the only successful five-and-dime store retailers. others included: McCrory Co, Newberry, S.S. Kresge, which would later evolve into Kmart, G.C. Murphy and Ben Franklin which would fold into Walmart, along with a host of independent stores nationwide. As for Frank, he was young enough that he would live to see his five cent stores become a nationwide chain.
What was the key to Woolwoth’s success? There were three key components: banding, cheap imported goods and sweet treats.
Frank Woolworth was a master of branding. His store signs would adopt a consistent red-and-gold color-scheme, featuring gold letters on a red background. Inside, his stores were clean, with handsome self-service wooden counters, which divided merchandise by category with the use of moveable glass dividers.
Another secret behind the success of Woolworth’s, is a business model that is still in play today.
The importing of goods from foreign markets with cheap labor. Woolworth would import his merchandise from Europe, which at the time was a center for cheap labor.
Candy sales were also particularly important to Woolworth’s success. Woolworth believed that candy, alone, would pay the rent on each store. Woolworth, himself, would say in an old Saturday Evening Post article, that, “I don’t pretend to know much about the candy business, but, in my opinion, if you want to make a big success of candy, put it in brass trays and put it up near the door, so that people can be reminded of it as they are passing out and take some home to the children. “
For some, it might be surprising that Woolworth could keep its shelves stocked exclusively with nickel and dime priced items for close to 55 years. But, as truth would have it, five-and-dime stores were beginning to feel the struggle by 1935. And for Woolworth’s that year would mark the end of their strict pricing structure which limited the maximum selling-price of items to twenty cents.
Despite the changes, however, the Woolworth chain would continue to prosper. By late as 1970’s, Woolworth would operate around 800 stores in the United States, making it the largest department store chain in the world.
As all good things eventually come to an end, so the end would come for the ‘so-called’ five-and-dime and it’s dominance of American retail. This type of variety store would officially depart the American landscape in 1997, when the F. W. Woolworth Company would end a nearly 120 year run in discount retail when they shuttered all 400 of their remaining stores.
While in most areas, the five-and-dime store is long-gone, the principle of the store is still alive. You can find the concept followed-up in the rise of dollar stores. From Dollar General, and Dollar Tree, to Family Dollar and other similarly branded stores. Which as of today, significantly outnumber mega-chains like Walmart and Rite Aid.
Perhaps surprisingly, you can still find a locally owned, old-school five-and-dime store, tucked away in random communities around the country. There are some to be found, like Sines 5 & 10 in Quakertown, PA., A.L. Stickle in Rhinebeck, NY., National 5 & 10 in Newark, DE., Guerneville 5 & 10, in Guerneville, CA., Berdine’s in Harrisville, WV., and two small remaining chains, Five and Dime General Stores and Vidler’s, with locations in Texas and California, and in New York state respectively.
Perhaps you might come across one on a vacation, or maybe you have an old five and dime still located near your hometown. But, in the meantime, we can be nostalgic, and wide-eyed, like children who would save up their meager allowance, to enjoy the wonder of shopping all the neat things one could find… in a simpler store…from a simpler time.