Frank Winfield Woolworth (April 13, 1852 – April 8, 1919) was the founder of F. W. Woolworth Company, and operator of discount stores known as “Five-and-Dimes” that featured a selection of merchandise priced at five and ten cents. He pioneered the now-common practices of buying merchandise direct from manufacturers and fixing prices on items, rather than haggling. He was the first to use self-service display cases so customers could examine what they wanted to buy without the help of a salesclerk.
His parents, John and Fanny Woolworth, were devout Methodists and sympathetic to the Northern (American) Cause during the Civil War – they raised their two sons, Frank Winfield and Charles Sumner, accordingly.
At the age of four, he told his parents that one day he would become one of the peddlers that sometimes came calling; he and Charles would play “store” where Frank would set up merchandise to be sold to his brother.
As was common at the time, F.W. finished his schooling at the age of sixteen, yet with only basic knowledge and no experience he was unfit to begin working in any legitimate store. Undeterred, F.W. applied to many shops in the area, every time receiving a resounding “No.”
Woolworth attended a business college for two terms in Watertown, New York after having received a loan from his mother.
In 1873 he worked as a stock boy in a general store called Augsbury & Moore’s Drygoods in Watertown. His first experiences at Augsbury & Moore’s would serve as the starting point to his own business venture and innovations. F.W. Woolworth was by all accounts an inept salesman. He was instead given jobs such as washing the windows where he found a creative niche in arranging the store’s front display. His work was so impressive that his boss, after his first attempt, assigned Woolworth that role from thereafter. In another scenario, Frank learned the difficulty with the typical business practice in which few items were labeled with price tickets and a clerk was responsible for obtaining an item for the customer and making the transaction. It was from these early experiences that Woolworth developed the notion that goods should sell themselves, something which became increasingly prominent in Woolworth’s retail career.
Under the employ of Moore & Smith, Woolworth jumped at the opportunity to sell a large surplus of goods and organized a store in Great Bend that opened on February 10, 1878; sales were disappointing. To make matters worse, five days later F.W.’s mother, Fanny, died. Either to repress his grief or now inspired, Frank threw himself into his work but to no avail, as the Great Bend store failed in May. Frank would always remember his mother’s words, “Don’t worry son, I just know one day you’ll be a rich man.” It was after his mother’s death that Woolworth’s trademark concept of the 5-and-10 Cent store, or the “Five-and-Dime,” was developed.
Accounts on the conception of the five-and-dime differ. Scholar Gail Fenske suggests that Woolworth had heard of a “five-cent counter craze” while questioning his own sales ability at his first job. Jean Maddern Pitrone suggests the idea was conceived after a travelling salesman told Woolworth of stores with the five-cent counter concept in Michigan. Plunkett-Powell suggests the concept was overheard by Woolworth during a discussion between William Moore and a young man who had opened his own cut-rate goods store. Regardless of how it was brought about, it is clear that this concept would become the most profound key to Woolworth’s success and would change not only his life, but retailing as well.
He borrowed $300 and opened a five-cent store in Utica, New York, on February 22, 1878. It failed within weeks. Woolworth opened his second store in April 1879, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he expanded the concept to include merchandise priced at ten cents.
In 1911, the F.W. Woolworth Company was incorporated with 586 stores. In 1913, Woolworth built the Woolworth Building in New York City at a cost of $13.5 million in cash. At the time, it was the tallest building in the world, measuring 792 feet, or 241.4 meters.
Woolworth died on April 8, 1919, five days before his 67th birthday. At the time of his death, Woolworth was worth approximately $6.5 million or the equivalent of 1/1214th of the US GNP  His company owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States and other countries and was a $65 million ($804,328,215 in 2009 dollars) corporation. He died without signing his newest will, so his handicapped wife received the estate under the provision of his older 1889 will.
Woolworth is interred in The Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.
His granddaughter Barbara Hutton would gain much publicity for her lifestyle, squandering more than $50 million. Hutton likely named her London, UK, mansion after her grandfather’s Long Island estate.
In the 1960’s, the company began expanding into various individual specialty store concepts, including sportswear, which led to the development of the Foot Locker sporting goods store in 1974. By 1997, the original chain he founded had been reduced to 400 stores, and other divisions of the company began to be more profitable than the original chain. The original chain went out of business on July 17, 1997, as the firm changed its name, initially to Venator, but in 2001 adopted its sporting goods brand, Foot Locker, Inc. In 2012, they celebrated Woolworth’s 100th anniversary on the New York Stock Exchange.
The UK stores (under separate ownership since 1982) continued operating under the Woolworth name after the US operation ceased, and by the 2000s traded as Woolworths Group. The final UK stores ceased trading January 6, 2009. The UK Woolworths brand was bought by Shop Direct Group in the UK who plan to run the store online only.
Woolworth stores continue to operate in Germany.
Although both the Australian company Woolworths Limited and the South African company Woolworths Holdings Limited took their names from Woolworth’s US and UK stores, they have no connection to the F.W. Woolworth Company.
Woolworth was inducted into the Junior Achievement (US) Business Hall of Fame in 1995.
A cemetery east of Watertown, New York, where he started his first store, is named for him.
In 1978, the Woolworth Estate became the home of Monica Randall, a writer and photographer. She wrote a memoir of her experiences there entitled Winfield: Living in the Shadow of the Woolworths. Other notable residents of Winfield were the Reynolds family of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Reynolds Aluminum. The mansion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
- Helen Pike (December 5, 1999). “Woolworth in New Jersey: A Love-Hate Relationship”. New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-27.
- Plunkett-Powell, Karen. Remembering Woolworth’s: a nostalgic history of the world’s most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. , 23.
- Plunkett-Powell, Karen. Remembering Woolworth’s: a nostalgic history of the world’s most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. , 25.
- Plunkett-Powell, Karen. Remembering Woolworth’s: a nostalgic history of the world’s most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. , 28.
- Plunkett-Powell, Karen. Remembering Woolworth’s: a nostalgic history of the world’s most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. , 29.
- Fenske, Gail. The skyscraper and the city: the Woolworth Building and the making of modern New York. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. , 13.
- Plunkett-Powell, Karen. Remembering Woolworth’s: a nostalgic history of the world’s most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. , 32.
- Plunkett-Powell, Karen. Remembering Woolworth’s: a nostalgic history of the world’s most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. , 35.
- Pitrone, Jean Maddern. F.W. Woolworth and the American five and dime: a social history. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003. , 12.
- Plunkett-Powell, Karen. Remembering Woolworth’s: a nostalgic history of the world’s most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. , 36.
- “Mrs. Hutton Found Dead. Daughter of F. W. Woolworth Suffocated in Her Room at the Plaza”. New York Times. May 3, 1917. Retrieved 2011-12-03. “Mrs. Franklyn Laws Hutton, who was Edna Woolworth, daughter of F. W. Woolworth, was found dead in her apartment at the hotel Plaza. …”
- Michael Klepper and Michael Gunther (1996), The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates — A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present,Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, p. xiii, ISBN 978-0-8065-1800-8, OCLC 33818143
- “Woolworth Died With Will Unsigned. Death Came So Suddenly That Document, Long Under Consideration, Was Not Executed. Demented Wife Gets All. Estate of Between $30,000,000 and $40,000,000 Disposed Of Under Will Made in 1889.”. New York Times. April 15, 1919. Retrieved 2008-06-27. “The family of Frank Winfield Woolworth made public yesterday the fact that Mr. Woolworth’s death came so suddenly that he did not have time to execute an extended will upon which he had been long at work, making many …”
- Fortune Magazine 1990 Business Hall of Fame
- location of the cemetery
- “National Register Information System”. National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13.