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City first choice for wonder of Woolies; Liverpool store led the way for Woolworth empire in UK.


ONE national newspaper sneered when farmer's boy Frank Winfield Woolworth decided to open his first UK store in Liverpool and said it would soon fail.

It was wrong.

Woolies became the people's store - and nowhere more so than in Liverpool, where it all began 99 years ago.

Having pioneered the walk-around open display store in America, Mr Woolworth made his first visit to Britain in 1890, writing back to his executives at home: "These stores we have seen are nothing but little shops ... not much like our fine stores. I think a good 1d (one penny) and 6d (sixpence) store run by a live Yankee would create a sensation here."

He was right - even if it took a little while for many Brits to embrace this concept in shopping.

But the Daily Mail - not for the last time misjudging the mood of the man and woman in the street - suggested that Liverpool had only been chosen so that when the business failed Mr F.W. Woolworth and Co.could make a sharp exit back hometo America via the docks, leaving their debts behind them.

Balderdash and poppycock, as may have been said at the time.

It was a different story on the ground in Liverpool, with thousands of people taking up the invitation to browse around the new store in Church Street on Friday November 5, 1909 (it would officially open for business the next day).

The scaremongers were proved spectacularly wrong, with the store being an instant success - its counters were virtually stripped bare before the end of the first day's trading.

Frank Winfield Woolworth, who was born in Rodman, New York, in 1852, had looked at a dozen locations across the UK - including Manchester, Birmingham, Southampton and London's Hammersmith and Kensington - but Liverpool, then second city of the Empire, was his favourite.

On that first day of viewing in Church Street customers were entertained by a brass band and offered free tea in the first floor "refreshment room".

Woolworth had noticed a major difference between UK and US stores, saying that the relatively small size of shops over here meant: "The moment you go in, you are expected to buy and to have made your choice from the window. They give you an icy stare if you follow the American custom of just going to look round."

And yet old habits die hard and it was at first difficult for many shoppers in Liverpool to spend several minutes browsing without buying. With this in mind, the first UK stores offered a free pot of tea in the refreshment room for the first year after the opening.

The next opening was in Preston the following spring. A second Liverpool store followed, this time in London Road, followed by Manchester, Leeds and Hull and then a number of stores in London.

More than 40 stores were opened between 1910 and 1914 - each one masterminded from the company's buying offices on the third floor of its Liverpool store.

As for the company's pricing policy, the upper price limit in the stores was 6d, with many items at 3d and occasional special lines at just one penny. Goods such as china and glassware were sold cheaply thanks to the company's policy of placing massive orders and paying in cash to secure better prices.

Other popular lines included children's clothes, haberdashery, toys, sheet music, Christmas decorations, pots and pans and stationery.

Mr Woolworth moved his original Liverpool store across the road after 14 years and there it stayed, until the tills finally closed decades later (the building later reopened under the Burton men's clothing banner).

It may not have happened as soon as the Daily Mail predicted, but the company's flagship store finally closed, after nearly 74 years, on June 4, 1983.

The bombshell news had been revealed in March 1982, with the ECHO beginning one report with the words of Helen Langley, the store's longest-serving assistant, who said: "It's impossible to think of Liverpool without a Woolies."

It was one of 25 stores nationwide to be put up for sale in the hope of bringing in pounds 90m. Thousands of people signed a petition against the closure but, sadly, to no avail.

Seven years later, however, there was good news when it was announced that the wonder of Woolies was returning to its Liverpool birthplace, with a new store planned for St John's Centre.

Tell us your Woolies memories www.liverpool


FLAGSHIP STORE: Closure of the Woolworth shop in Church Street was announced in 1982, prompting a campaign to save it
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Nov 27, 2008
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