I’m taking a quick holiday from writing and instead, today’s post is largely based, with his permission, on some webpages originally written by Paul Seaton who runs a website about the history of Woolworths, called
All the photos unless otherwise acknowledged come from his archive. So if you’re feeling nostalgic or interested in any other aspect of Woolworths and their history then go and take a look at Paul’s website and cheer yourself up!
I found the website when researching my earlier post about Harry Wheatcroft the rose grower [see 4th July 2015] because Woolworths were his biggest single outlet. But it was not just roses they sold. It turns out that in their heyday Woolworths were probably the biggest horticultural supplier in the country. The High Street store chain sold flower bulbs, shrubs, plants and seeds for almost a hundred years and even today, if you see a daffodil or tulip in bloom anywhere in the UK, there’s still a one in three chance that the bulb originally came from Woolworths!
Read on to find out more about Britain’s love affair with Frank Winfield Woolworth and his stores….and especially their gardening departments.
Before World War II bulbs and shrubs were sold loose rather than in packs. Bulbs like daffodils and tulips were one old penny each (½p), rosebuds (grafted small twigs of rose bush) were three pence (1.25p) and hybrid bulbs like prepared hyacinths were five pence (2p) each. Tiny bulbs like crocuses and muscari were three for a penny (7 for 1p).
Each September bulbs, shrubs, plant pots and bulb fibre ‘grew’ taking about a sixth of the total space in-store !
In the 1910s and 1920s many Woolworth customers didn’t have a garden, just a small back yard or a simple window box. The retailer aimed to help them to create a splash of colour, or to grow a few vegetables despite the restricted space. Leaflets explained how to achieve the maximum yield. Many of the homes that were built in suburbs in the Thirties had a little land of their own. In some areas a new semi-detached house with electricity, running water and a small garden could be purchased for just £200. Woolworth went to great lengths to attract the new homeowners, opening stores near the new developments and offering tools, brushes, utensils and floor coverings for the house and many varieties of shrub, plants and bulbs to make the garden bloom.
By 1930 the firm had become the stand-out market leader for gardening products, selling millions of packets of vegetable and flower seeds from the leading nurseries, including Bees, Carters and R. & G. Cuthbert. At the time there was no such thing as a garden centre, just a counter at the front of Woolies! To compliment the plants, there were also pots, seed trays, fertilisers and ‘bags of dirt’. The compost was sold in vast quantities in small bags with carrying handles for just a penny or two.
Before the war, goods were sent to stores by train. Each Spring every branch received so many seed potatoes and onion sets sold that a whole railway carriage was needed. The large stores sent their horse and cart to the station to collect them, while the smaller stores waited up to a week for Carter Paterson to deliver them to the door. In the early summer the process was repeated for roses and shrubs. Many of the shrubs were grown by the nurseries of East Anglia and Cambridgeshire, while the majority of the bulbs were imported from Holland.
Each branch stocked an exclusive range of tools made by Jenks and Cattell of Wolverhampton. These had wooden handles and distinctive scarlet red blades. The jaw-drop price of sixpence, equivalent to £2.11 each today, guaranteed bumper sales. Woolworth made one penny on each item.
Other best sellers in the 1930s included rubber garden hoses for threepence, grass seed which was sold loose at sixpence for six ounces (about fifteen pence a kilo at the time), as well as yard-lengths of picket fencing for sixpence (around 3p per metre).
This window display was photographed in Church Street, Liverpool. It was then printed as a postcard and copied right across the chain. The same display then appeared in more than four hundred different windows.
Just weeks after the Autumn Bulb display below went on sale in the store in Kilburn, London NW4, Britain declared war on Germany. By the following year the sixpenny price limit on goods in the store had gone forever, and instead of flowers the focus was on growing food to supplement wartime rationing and to fill the gap left by a sea blockade which prevented imports from the Empire.
Cuthbert’s seeds, a special favourite at Woolworth’s, played a key part in the Ministry of Food’s Dig for Victory campaign and helped inspire a new generation of gardeners. In the years straight after the war, austerity measures meant that food was rationed more strictly than at the height of the Blitz. Families were glad of the runner beans, carrots and potatoes that they had grown in their flower borders or dug-up lawns.
After the long conflict the chain continued to outsell the combined efforts of nurseries and garden centres, with a market-beating selection of seeds, shrubs, roses and garden tools. The High Street stores extended their displays of vegetable seeds to meet strong customer demand. Colourful signs were used to inform shoppers of the exceptionally high yields that could be expected from the R & G Cuthbert range.
“Is this a record,” they asked, “two pounds and twelve ounces of carrots from a single fourpenny packet?” (In equivalent terms that would be 1.15 kg for 2p)
The picture above shows that the seed counter was allocated a large space in-store in the Spring. It also shows how seed prices had been maintained in the foreground, while others had risen up to seven-fold compared with the pre-war maximum.
War austerity measures were gradually relaxed. By 1950 the stores were able to supplement the vegetables and compost with flower seeds, shrubs and rose bushes once again.
During the Fifties Woolworth gardeners became increasing aspirational. A craze saw many customers building greenhouses and potting sheds. Lawns were relaid and many borders were replanted with flower seeds. The stores responded with staging and larger pots for the greenhouse, and new fertilizers and a choice of half a dozen different grass seeds to suit varying positions and traffic levels in the garden.
In a new departure, executives signed up a string of radio and television personalities to write gardening tips each season, which were distributed in free magazines and leaflets. These were funded by advertising from the major suppliers. This type of celebrity endorsement had proved effective in the USA and was recommended by the parent company. Between 1950 and 1980 Clay Jones, Harry Wheatcroft and Fred Streeter all developed strong followings for their topical tips and gardening calendars. As well as the freebie leaflets, each featured in colour books which were sold at Christmas.
In the 1960s the range expanded as stores grew larger. Some city centre branches had big garden centres, copying an idea from the new out-of-town Woolco subsidiary.
New ranges targeted affluent customers. There were displays of wrought iron gates, Atco Petrol Mowers and aluminium Crittall Greenhouses. Woolco invited people to ‘buy now and pay later’ with a new chargecard. The idea was so popular that by the 1970s all stores offered credit terms.
But while they might have modernized in some ways, in others Woolworths remained traditional and each year most of the High Street stores sold bedding plants, which the Managers bought in from local nurseries. Nevertheless change eventually came to this too. The 1970s saw the rise of independent out-of-town garden centres, as an increasing number of households got cars. Woolworth responded with price cuts and emphasized the convenience of ‘the garden centre in your High Street’.
From 1976, where space allowed, back yards of the largest stores were converted to outdoor Garden Centres, where the selection of growing plants could be displayed to advantage. The natural light and ease of watering also helped to extend the shelf life of the shrubs and blooms.
But, despite the bravado, the Woolworth offer was starting to look outdated in a world of Garden Centres and out-of-town DIY stores. Throughout the decade the management struggled to reinvent the formula. In the end their biggest tactic – buying the rapidly-expanding DIY chain B&Q – is thought to have precipitated a buy out of the American 52% golden share of the British Woolworth subsidiary by a consortium of entrepreneurs and banks in 1982.
The new owners took a long, hard look at the business, eliminating many of the ranges across the store and specialising in six specialist ‘stories’ that Woolworths could be famous for. One of the six was ‘Home, Kitchen and Garden’, with the firm’s horticulture offer getting a full-scale makeover. Shrubs, rosebushes and trees were made more practical with carry-home packaging in bright colours. Each packet included pictures of what the full-grown plant would look like. The chain licenced the Cuthbert brand name and used it as an own label for fertilizers, garden tools and accessories, which continued to be supplied by ICI, Pan Britannica Industries and Jenks and Cattell. A selection of supplier brands, including Spear and Jackson tools, were offered at half of the manufacturer’s recommended price. The remaining stores with Garden Centres were given autonomy to make purchases from local nurseries within a framework of pricing and display guidelines, allowing them to prosper.
Exploiting their scale, and with support from a wealth of radio and television personalities, Woolworth was also able to put on a good show at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, winning several medals in the 1970s & in the 1980s gaining Gold Medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for five successive years. They carried on sponsoring gardens at the show almost until they closed.
These successes prompted the leading grower Harry Wheatcroft to graft a special Woolworth rose – the Hybrid Tea ‘Chelsea Gold’ in 1987. Sadly this seems to have disappeared without trace. In 1995, marking the continued success of the gardening offer, the chain was able to follow this up with a Florbunda rose called ‘The Wonder of Woolies’, which can be seen at the top of this post.
As with every plant sold it was backed by a guarantee that it would grow, or your money back !
Despite continuing good sales, profits declined during the 1990s. This reflected both increased competition as Garden Centres consolidated into chains and were able to offer more competitive prices, and the decision of leading supermarkets to stock seeds and packet shrubs as part of their general merchandise offer, along with specials on tools and plant pots. But it also illustrated a more fundamental problem. For many years internally the company had called gardening ‘The Manager’s Department’, knowing that special expertise and follow-up was required to get the stock on sale quickly and to keep plants watered and stocks rotated. If a Store Manager adopted the department the displays would look good and the plants would sell through at full price. But it would only take a day or two’s neglect for everything to look half dead, requiring deep price cuts and sympathetic customers to try to ‘rescue’ the withering shrubs.
Further sales decline in the 1990s prompted bigger changes after the chain’s demerger from Kingfisher, as the new management pursued a Kids and Celebrations strategy, that required the lion’s share of store space. There was now much less room for plants , especially as they required regular care and attention
Nevertheless many stores continued to offer a limited range of fertilizers and plant care into the twenty-first century, with most branches offering a limited selection of shrubs and rosebushes in the Spring and early Autumn.
After a period in the 1990s when the stores had stocked separate racks of seeds branded Cuthbert and Suttons, even though they were both now owned by the same company and managed from the same headquarters in Torquay, the firm decided to stock only Suttons Seeds and to drop the Cuthbert label from own-brand products.
The Gardening Buyer had to be imaginative to align the range with the Kids and Celebrations strategy. New products with high child-appeal were added. Special seed kits and starter packs of mustard and cress and other out-of-the-box salads and vegetables proved ideal for school projects.
Garden gnomes became a surprise hit. The new range mixed a traditional style with trendy designs featuring the latest character brands. Paint your own gnomes and plant pots made good Christmas gifts, as something families could do together.
The introduction of the mail order catalogue The Big Red Book allowed the firm to offer large items like petrol and electric lawnmowers, strimmers, hedgetrimmers and garden sheds without carrying the stock in-store, with convenient home delivery. Such ‘direct’ lines, which were delivered from the supplier straight to the customer’s home, were among the most profitable lines sold from catalogues and the firm’s website. Today Woolies is just a dotcom, but its current owners Shop Direct Group has a long, proud tradition to build on.
But whatever the future direction, for years to come, each Spring the UK will bloom with the Wonder of Woolies, Chelsea Gold and Cuthbert daffodils, tulips and countless shrubs from the much loved and much missed High Street stores.