F.W. Woolworth was the first five-and-ten-cent store, which sold discounted general merchandise at fixed prices, usually five or ten cents, undercutting the prices of local merchants. It was also the first store to put merchandise out for the shopping public to handle, select, and purchase. In earlier shops, customers presented the clerk with a list of items to purchase which were all kept behind the counter. The stores eventually incorporated lunch counters and served as general gathering places, a precursor to the modern shopping mall food court.
The concept was widely copied, and five-and-ten-cent stores (also sometimes called five-and-dime stores) were a fixture in downtowns in America for the first half of the 20th century, and they anchored suburban strip malls in middle part of the 20th century. The criticisms that the five-and-dime stores drove local merchants out of business would repeat themselves a century later, when discount stores became popular.
On February 1, 1960, four African-American students sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's store. They were refused service, touching off six months of sit-ins and economic boycotts that were a landmark of the US civil rights movement. In 1993, the lunch counter was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
In the 1960s, the five-and-dime concept evolved into the larger discount store. In 1962, the same year as competitors Kmart (whose Kresge stores competed with the F.W. Woolworth five-and-ten stores), Target, and Wal-Mart, Woolworth founded a discount chain called Woolco. The chain closed in the United States in 1982. It was more successful in Canada, surviving until 1994, when the remaining 144 stores were sold to Wal-Mart.
The company also operated a number of other retail chains, including Foot Locker, Champs sporting goods, Kinney Shoe, and Northern Reflections apparel shops.
On July 17, 1997, Woolworth closed the remaining 400 of its F.W. Woolworth five-and-ten-cent stores. Analysts at the time cited the lower prices of the big discount stores and the expansion of grocery stores to carry most of the items five-and-ten-cent stores carried as factors in the stores' lack of success in the late 20th century.
Ironically, the same year, Wal-Mart replaced Woolworth on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Also in the same year, the company changed its name to Venator. On October 20, 2001, the company changed names again; this time, they took the name of their top performer and became Foot Locker, Inc.
Woolworths Limited was founded in the United Kingdom in 1909 as a subsidiary of the American company of the same name. In 1982 it was acquired by Paternoster Stores Ltd, the forerunner of Kingfisher plc. Woolworths Group plc was formed by the demerger of Kingfisher's general merchandise business, and began trading as a listed company on the London Stock Exchange on August 28, 2001.
Woolworths Limited is an unrelated Australian company that started trading in December 5, 1924. Founder C.S. Waine originally thought of the name "Wallworths Bazaar", which was intended as a play on the F.W. Woolworths chain, which was already established in the US. However, the name 'Woolworths' was available for registration in New South Wales and was used instead. The company owns many retail chains, such as Dick Smith Electronics, 'Safeway' and numerous petrol outlets.
See also: Woolworth Building