Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852-1919) was an American businessman and merchant who founded The FW Woolworth Company, an operator of discount stores. His stores were among the first ever to purchase merchandise directly from manufacturers, and offer fixed item prices to customers.
Frank was raised in a farming family in New York State, near Great Bend River. He is only sibling was his younger brother Charles, four years his junior.
The family farm seldom produced much, and the family was fairly poor, though his mother’s relatives made significantly more.
As a youth, Frank studied the life of Napoleon Bonaparte and made him a hero, admiring his initiative, passion and drive.
Frank worked in farming for some of his early life, but had aspiration to be a merchant.
He went on to work at a major dry good store, working his way up. During his six years there, he was married, bought a farm, and had his first child.
He also observed the store using a merchandising strategy where it offered leftover clearance times on a table priced at five cents, often in order to allure customers into the store to buy other merchandise.
Though this five-cent clearance table was the most part a merchandising fad, Frank was fond of the five-cent per item pricing concept, and borrowed $300 to open a small “Great Five Cent Store” where all items would be offered at five cents. He opened the store in 1879 in Utica, New York, only to watch it fail within weeks, after initially doing brisk sales.
Despite the store’s failure, Frank still believed that he was on to something—that the five-cent concept was not altogether wrong, but that it was just limiting.
Not much later, he tried opening another similar store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but this time he also added ten-cent merchandise to the store’s offerings. This store turned out to be a success. However, shortly later Frank went on to open two additional ones, both of which failed.
Undeterred, Frank opened another store in Scranton, and began bring in relatives such as his brother to run the stores. Frank and his brother expanded to a chain of five-and-ten-cent stores. That purchased in quantity, with the buying headed by Frank.
The chain became very successful, largely due to a large influx of American immigrants attracted to the straightforward discount pricing strategy.
In 1911, the FW Woolworth Company was consolidated and incorporated, uniting 586 stores founded by the Woolworth brothers and others. Two years later, Frank built the Woolworth Building in New York City—which at that time became recognized as the tallest building in the world.
Married with three daughters and several grandchildren, his granddaughter Barbara Hutton would gain much publicity for her lifestyle, squandering more than $50 million.
Woolworth died in 1919. At the time, his company owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States.
By 1997, the chain, which had been reduced to 400 stores, went out of business. Interestingly enough, it was around this time that stores similar to Woolworth’s original five-and-ten-cent stores began rapidly expanding and growing in popularity, including chains such as the 99 Cent only Stores.