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Kingfisher Plc Business Information, Profile, and History

woolworth company shops chain

North West House
119 Marylebone Road
London NW1 5PX
United Kingdom

Company Perspectives:

Our objective is to deliver consistent and superior returns to our shareholders by being one of Europe's most profitable volume retailers.

Our strategy is to achieve this by concentrating on markets centered on the home and family, which we know and understand, and developing strong retail brands with leading positions in our markets. Our growth will be driven by a commitment to continuously evolve the offers we make to meet the changing needs and aspirations of our customers more effectively than our competitors.

History of Kingfisher Plc

Based in London, Kingfisher plc is a major European retailing and property group. Its U.K. retail chains include Woolworths, a variety chain of 781 shops; B&Q, a chain of 280 do-it-yourself (DIY) centers; Superdrug, a chain of 705 drug stores; and Comet, a chain of 224 electrical stores. Foreign chains owned by Kingfisher include three retailers of electrical goods: 150-unit Darty, France's leading electrical retailer; New Vanden Borre, with 19 units in Belgium; and BCC, with 17 stores in the Netherlands. Kingfisher also holds a 60 percent stake in Promarkt, an electrical retailer in Germany, and a 26 percent stake in BUT, the fourth largest electrical retailer in France. Two smaller U.K. businesses round out the company's retailing operations: Music and Video Club (MVC), a 34-unit chain selling music CDs and cassettes, pre-recorded videos, and multimedia items; and Entertainment UK, a leading distributor of music CDs and cassettes, pre-recorded videos, video games, CD-ROM computer software, and books. Kingfisher's Chartwell Land plc unit is a property company that started by redeveloping the Woolworth properties and has diversified into redeveloping properties of other companies both in and outside of the group and also manages an investment portfolio.

Woolworth Beginnings

Kingfisher originated as a subsidiary of F.W. Woolworth & Co. of the United States. The American company was founded in 1879. The company's founder, Frank Winfield Woolworth, identified the potential for a walk-around open display type of shop in Britain during his first visit to Europe in 1890. He observed that "the [London] stores ... are very small and are called 'shops' and not much like our fine stores. I think a good [threepenny and sixpenny] store run by a live Yankee would create a sensation here, but perhaps not." In 1909 he decided to found a subsidiary in Britain even though his chief executives thought that it would be unsuccessful. On July 23, 1909, the subsidiary was incorporated in England as a private limited company, F.W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd., with a share capital of £50,250. In 1912 the share capital was increased to £100,000. After this time the entire increase in assets was built up from earnings and there was no further increase in capitalization. Between 1909 and 1919 the American shareholders received no dividends at all and for the following six years dividends were paltry. This was not for lack of profits but because the shareholders wanted to build up the reserves of the company so that it was always in a position to expand without recourse to borrowing.

The first shop opened at 25 and 25a Church Street, Liverpool, on November 5, 1909. The Draper described it as "a penny, threepenny, and sixpenny bazaar on a large scale. In each of the four large salesrooms there are wide counters, extending the full length of the hall, and on these are placed mahogany trays containing the articles for disposal.... The public, we are told, are privileged 'to wander round the immense establishment without being importuned to buy."' During the first two days of business 60,000 people visited the shop. Following steady business improvement, Woolworth opened a second shop in Preston and properties were also obtained in Manchester, Leeds, and Hull. In 1910 a third shop was opened, on London Road, Liverpool. The premises were obtained from Owen Owen, a department store owner, who told Woolworth that he had no idea that the "bazaar business could be elevated to such a high standard." On the opening of the third shop there was a riot. The riot made the management wary. When the sixth shop opened in Hull later in 1910, crowd barriers were put in place to stem the anticipated rush of customers. By the end of 1910 the company was operating ten shops, with another two in preparation.

The same business methods that had worked so well in the United States were adopted in Britain. Everything carried a plain price tag, and the prices were one old penny (£0.004), three old pence (£0.0125), and six old pence (£0.025). Supplies were bought directly from manufacturers. As in the United States, Woolworth had difficulty at first in Britain in persuading manufacturers to deal with him directly. Like the U.S. manufacturers, however, the British manufacturers who agreed to supply Woolworth directly soon found they had made the correct decision. Many of these suppliers also grew with Woolworth from small beginnings. A notable example was Duttons Ltd. When the first shop was opened in Liverpool, Duttons received its first Woolworth order. Subsequently, Duttons set out solely to service Woolworth with all types of price tickets, advertising, and printed matter. By the early 1960s Duttons was also responsible for the supply of many items of stationery to the majority of Woolworth's suppliers.

The Woolworth method of retailing moved from strength to strength. By 1912 the chain had expanded to 28 shops, 26 of which were managed by Britons. The year's net profits were more than US $100,000. In 1914 Woolworth opened its 31st shop, in Grafton Street, Dublin. This was the first Woolworth shop in Ireland. After the creation of the Irish Republic, Woolworth established a separate Irish subsidiary, F.W. Woolworth Company of Ireland, Ltd. When World War I began, women store managers took the places of the men who joined the armed forces. When suitable women could not be found, men were drafted from the parent company in the United States. After the war, the British subsidiary was ready for major expansion. The man who was to be principally responsible for the expansion was William L. Stephenson.

Floated As British Public Company in 1931

Frank Woolworth met Stephenson through Edward Owen of Birmingham, a buyer for Wanamaker and other American shops. Stephenson was Owen's assistant. Stephenson started work at the company in September 1909, at the express invitation of Frank Woolworth, even before the first shop had been opened. Stephenson succeeded Fred M. Woolworth, a cousin of Frank, as managing director of the British subsidiary when Fred died in 1923, becoming chairman in 1931 when Woolworth was floated as a British public company and the U.S. parent corporation's interest in its subsidiary was reduced from 62 percent to 52.7 percent of the ordinary shares. Shortly before the flotation, F.W. Woolworth Company of Ireland, Ltd. was voluntarily liquidated and its two shops in Dublin and one each in Cork, Belfast, Limerick, and Kilkenny were incorporated into the British company. The flotation of the chain of 444 shops was underwritten by N.M. Rothschild & Sons. As a result of the company's excellent track record, the Woolworth flotation was a success, despite taking place in the depths of the Great Depression. Since its foundation in 1909 its turnover and profits had never failed to rise from one year to the next, and continued to do so each year until the early part of World War II.

An important change made by Stephenson was to buy properties for his shops instead of taking leases (Stephenson's property investments would later make a major contribution to the revival of Woolworth's successor, Kingfisher, during the 1980s). Under Stephenson's management Woolworth was soon opening shops in Britain at the rate of at least one every fortnight. This remarkable rate of growth was maintained until the early part of World War II. By the late 1930s each shop returned an operating profit two or three times as large as its U.S. counterpart. In 1939, when World War II began, there were 759 British Woolworth shops and nine more under construction.

World War I had brought difficulties to Woolworth but they had been surmounted. From 1914 to 1918 the number of British shops rose from 44 to 81. World War II was different. The expansion program ceased. Furthermore, 23 shops were destroyed and 352 were damaged by enemy action. The company's Channel Island shops in Guernsey and Jersey were placed under German administration from July 1940. In both wars, many of Woolworth's staff joined the armed forces and many did not return. In World War II, however, many who stayed in Woolworth's service were killed by enemy action. In November 1944, a single V2 rocket destroyed the shop at New Cross, London. In this second worst air raid of the war, 160 people in the shop were killed, including the manager and 18 members of her staff, and an additional 108 people were seriously injured.

In 1948 Stephenson retired as chairman of Woolworth. In the early postwar period, it was some time before material losses could be made good. It was not until the latter part of 1956 that the last blitzed shop was reopened. There had been 768 shops in operation in 1940. By 1950 there were still only 762, but from the end of 1951 the expansion program was resumed.

Postwar Expansion at Home and Abroad

In 1954 Woolworth began a new program of expansion into the British Commonwealth with the establishment of a subsidiary in the British West Indies. On November 4, 1954, the company's first store in the West Indies was opened in Kingston, Jamaica. In November 1955 a second West Indian store was opened in Port of Spain, Trinidad. In October 1956 a third shop was opened in Bridgetown, Barbados. Between mid-1958 and the end of 1973 the West Indian subsidiary was expanded to more than a dozen shops located in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados. Woolworth also established a subsidiary in southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, at the end of the 1950s. A shop was opened on March 18, 1959, in the capital, Salisbury. On November 10, 1960, a second shop was opened in Bulawayo. In early 1974 a subsidiary was established in Cyprus and a shop was opened in Nicosia.

Meanwhile, the number of shops in the British Isles also expanded rapidly. The 1,000th shop was opened in Portslade, Hove, Sussex, in May 1958. A peak of 1,141 shops was reached in the late 1960s. With the widening range of merchandise stocked by Woolworth there had to be a wider range of prices. Inflation resulted in the end of the three old pence and six old pence price limits during World War II. In the early postwar period Woolworth pioneered the development of self-service in the variety part of the retail sector. In 1955 Woolworth opened its first British self-service shop in the small village of Cobham, Surrey, modeled on the experience in America. Customers could, if they so desired, collect a wire basket at the shop entrance in which to place their purchases, and payment was made at one of three or four cash desks at the exit, eliminating the need to pay separately at each department visited, as in the traditional shops. The first completely self-service Woolworth shop was opened at Didcot near Oxford in September 1956. By the early 1970s Woolworth had more than 190 purely self-service shops in operation, some of them large by British standards, selling a full variety shop range.

In October 1966 Woolworth founded a new division, the Woolco Department Stores. The division was to oversee the creation of a national chain of up to 20 out-of-town department stores that were to operate independently and in addition to the traditional shops. The stores contained a full range of quality merchandise at competitive prices, including clothes, domestic appliances, toys, groceries, confectionery, car service, and restaurants. The new stores were modeled on the parent company's Woolco stores in U.S. and Canadian suburban shopping centers, which had been in operation since 1962. The first British Woolco was opened in October 1967 at Oadby, Leicester. Oadby provided free parking for about 750 cars away from the congestion of the city center. Between 1969 and 1977 an additional 13 Woolco stores were opened. In 1977, however, Woolworth began to reassess the value of the Woolco division to the company. In December it sold its Woolco store at Kirkby and a hypermarket site with planning permission in Blackpool.

Began Period of Decline in Late 1960s

In the late 1960s profits began to fall at Woolworth. A visible sign of trouble came in 1968, when Woolworth lost its place as Britain's leading retailer and Marks & Spencer overtook it in both sales and profits. Despite a modernization program, Woolworth still possessed a number of small and poorly located branches with an extremely low rate of turnover and profitability. These branches detracted from the improved performance of the larger units. Furthermore, the Woolco stores were still in the development stage. The results announced in January 1970 were the worst since 1962.

During the late 1960s the company's modernization program had been extended to include the enlargement of the company's shops in the major British towns and cities. Two that were opened after extensions in 1968, in Wolverhampton and Ipswich, became the largest in area in Britain. The largest of all, in Wolverhampton, had a shopping area of 70,000 square feet with 1.25 miles of counters. The Aylesbury store, which opened in the jubilee week of the company, on November 7, 1969, became the second largest shop, with an area of 69,000 square feet. In the early 1970s major extensions and modernizations took place at Basingstoke, Brentwood, Hartlepool, Brighton, Leith, Liverpool, Manchester, and Wrexham. These shops included extended male, female, and children's clothing departments; fitting rooms; sports departments; music and record departments; and extended hardware and household departments. They also had extensive food departments and restaurants.

In 1971, with profits still falling, Woolworth began a new cash-and-wrap policy and began to convert 777 shops from conventional behind-the-counter service to a system of centralized payment points in each shop where goods could be paid for and wrapped, thus increasing the speed of service. At the same time the company closed 23 of its unprofitable shops and attempted to trade up and lose its reputation as a purveyor of cheap goods. Nonetheless, the consumer boom of the early 1970s appeared to have passed Woolworth by. Woolworth's profits failed to recover very strongly, in part as a result of the heavy costs of its shop modernization program in the early 1970s and prolonged start-up problems with a new distribution center at Swindon that had been opened in July 1972.

Despite its stated intention to stop selling cheap goods, in 1973 Woolworth decided to open a chain of catalogue discount shops. The new chain, Shoppers World, was launched in Leeds in September 1974 and initially consisted of 15 shops in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds. After considerable initial success, the chain also opened an outlet in London in September 1975. Nonetheless, profits continued to stagnate in the mid-1970s. Although the company showed a determination to change with the times, one of its weaknesses was the poor quality of its customer service. Staff turnover was high and this led to consumer dissatisfaction. Another weakness derived from the expansion in the British Isles during the 1950s. Many of the sites chosen were in secondary locations unsuitable for chain stores. An even more serious weakness was that it launched itself into new products in the wrong way. The success of the new products depended on a well-trained staff, first-rate service, and a more polished consumer image than Woolworth had acquired by the mid-1970s. In the late 1970s, however, the performance of the company began to improve. In 1978 the company lifted itself clear of a ten-year profit trough.

Acquired B&Q DIY Chain in 1980

During the late 1970s there was a major change of emphasis in Woolworth away from food into furniture, clothing, do-it-yourself (DIY), and other durable items. In August 1980, in its first ever takeover bid, Woolworth paid £16.7 million for a Southhampton-based chain of more than 40 DIY centers, B&Q (Retail). In October 1981 Woolworth acquired the Dodge City chain of 32 DIY centers for £20.1 million. The centers were complementary to B&Q's 49 existing centers.

Despite the recovery in profits in the late 1970s, Woolworth had still not solved its problems. In 1981, having supposedly repositioned itself upmarket, Woolworth cut prices on 800 of its lines. In addition, Woolworth began to sell off some of its valuable prime town center properties to stem the losses these large shops were making. On balance this made sense, since though these properties were valuable they were also leviathans. The 1981 results, excluding property sales, showed after-tax profits down from £30.3 million to £22.5 million. The company's dividend was cut for the first time in its history. Not only were the shareholders dissatisfied, but also the customers and employees.

Taken Over by Paternoster in 1982

In September 1982 a syndicate of institutional investors led by the merchant bank Charterhouse Japhet launched a £310 million takeover bid for the British Woolworth through the specially created Paternoster Stores plc. Paternoster was led by Wolverhampton-born Chairman John Beckett. By November, more than 90 percent of the shareholders had accepted the syndicate's bid and Paternoster's name was changed to Woolworth Holdings plc. As Paternoster did not have enough money to cover the whole of the bid, U.S. Woolworth temporarily retained a 12.7 percent share in the new company. The holding was sold almost immediately afterward.

Woolworth Holdings began to reorganize by removing the unprofitable parts of the business. Between late 1982 and 1991 the group sold about 200 of its unprofitable Woolworth shops in the United Kingdom, reducing the number to around 790. The group also sold all 18 of its shops in the Irish Republic in 1984. In April 1983 the Shoppers World chain of 45 shops was closed down. Later in 1985 the Woolworth shops in Cyprus were sold and between 1987 and 1990 all of the shops in the West Indies and Zimbabwe were also sold. On the other hand, B&Q, a profitable part of the business, was expanded, mostly through organic growth, with as many as 30 new stores a year. By January 1984 the company's pretax profits had risen from £6.1 million to £29.4 million. To emphasize that the change in the group's Woolworth shops was fundamental, their trading name was changed from F.W. Woolworth to Woolworths in March 1986. In May 1984 the company launched a successful bid for Comet, the electrical goods discount chain, for £128.9 million. During 1984 Woolworths Holdings profits nearly doubled. Profits came from the still-expanding B&Q, now with 153 centers, the newly acquired Comet, and the Woolworth shops disposal program.

In early 1986 Beckett retired as chairman of Woolworths Holdings, having successfully overseen the revival of the group. During 1986 the company was subject to an unsuccessful £1.75 billion hostile takeover bid from Dixons Group plc, the electronics retailer. During the takeover battle, the group sold its 12 Woolco superstores to Dee Corporation plc for £26 million. The Woolco sale fitted in with the group's "Focus" program--launched in 1985--of concentrating on a narrower range of merchandise: toys, gifts, confectionery, entertainment (including records and cassettes), home and garden accessories, kitchen accessories, kids' clothes, and cosmetics. Food and adult clothing, which contributed 30 percent of sales, were completely abandoned. The Woolco stores, which had specialized in groceries and clothing, had been the first out-of-town food stores and could have become as successful as the Sainsbury superstores later became. The buyers in the old Woolworth were jealous of Woolco's initial success, however, and started cramming them with old-fashioned variety merchandise.

As part of "Focus" the company formed a joint venture with the Rosehaugh property group to redevelop five of its Woolworth shops by reducing the amount of space occupied by the shops. For example, the Wolverhampton shop was shrunk from three floors to one floor. In the opinion of the Financial Times, while it made good sense it was a "humiliating climb-down." Also in 1986 came the acquisition of Record Merchandisers, which was later renamed Entertainment UK and which by the mid-1990s was a leading U.K. distributor of pre-recorded music and videos, computer software, and books.

In April 1987 the group was approached by Underwoods, a chain of 40 chemist and consumer goods shops in London. Underwoods suggested the group might like to acquire it, but the chain's profit forecast proved unsatisfactory and the proposal was rejected. The group acquired Charlie Browns, however, a chain of 42 car parts sales and fitting centers in northern England, for £19.2 million. At the end of March the group made a successful bid of £256.9 million for Superdrug plc, a discount chain of 297 drugstores. The company had been established in 1966 by brothers Peter and Ronald Goldstein. In January 1988 the group acquired Ultimate, a chain of 94 electrical retailing outlets, from Harris Queensway for £6.3 million. Ultimate was integrated into Comet. In January 1988 the group launched a successful takeover bid of £13 million for Tip Top Drugstores plc, a chain of 110 drugstores. These were integrated into the 339-store Superdrug chain. Tip Top's strength lay in northern England and Scotland, while Superdrug's lay in southeast England. In February the group launched another successful bid of £32 million for Share Drug plc, a chain of 145 drugstores that was also integrated into Superdrug, strengthening its position in southern England. Also in 1988, Woolworth Properties--the group's property holding and development arm--was renamed Chartwell Land plc.

Renamed Kingfisher plc in 1989

On March 17, 1989, the group was renamed Kingfisher plc. The purpose of the new name was to emphasize how much the group had changed since it was purchased from its U.S. parent in 1982. In October Kingfisher acquired the Laskys chain of 58 electrical goods shops for £3.6 million. Kingfisher claimed that, by taking on £5.3 million of bank debt from Granada PLC, the shops would be integrated with Comet's 308 shops. In fact, most of them were closed after they had been operating under the Comet name for only a few months. In November 1989 Kingfisher acquired the Medicare chain of 86 drug stores from Isosceles for about £5 million. About a third were closed and the remainder was integrated with Superdrug.

In December 1989 Kingfisher launched a hostile £568 million takeover bid for Dixons. In January 1990 the bid was referred by the British government to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) because "... there are possible effects on competition in the UK market for the retail of electrical goods." The bid was blocked by the Trade and Industry Secretary at the end of May following the publication of the MMC's report, which had recommended that the merger not be permitted. Also in early 1990, Geoffrey Mulcahy was named chairman of Kingfisher.

Acquisitive 1990s

During the 1990s Kingfisher made a number of acquisitions, in the process becoming a much more diversified retailer and building an enlarged presence in continental Europe. Its first major move of the decade, however, was to grow organically through the launch of a new retail concept, Music and Video Club (MVC), which specialized in such home entertainment staples as music CDs and cassettes, prerecorded videos, and multimedia products; by 1996 there were 34 MVCs in the United Kingdom. Next, Kingfisher made a short-lived move into the office supply superstore arena. In early 1993 Kingfisher entered into a joint venture with Framingham, Massachusetts-based Staples, Inc. to form Staples UK; by late 1996 the venture had opened 34 Staples stores in the United Kingdom. In late 1993 Kingfisher spent £7.9 million to acquire a 33 percent stake in Maxi-Papier-Markt, a German office superstore chain. In late 1996 the company sold its stakes in both Staples UK and Maxi-Papier--both of which were losing money&mdashø Staples, Inc. for £29.4 million, a move designed to enable Kingfisher to concentrate on its core areas.

A successful and burgeoning area for the company in the 1990s was that of electrical goods retailing. With Comet already in the fold, Kingfisher set its sights on the continent. In 1993 the company acquired Le Groupe Darty of France; Darty held the top spot among electrical retailers in France. In 1996 Kingfisher spent £84.2 million to acquire a 26 percent interest in BUT S.A., the fourth largest electrical retailer in France. Discussions in late 1997 regarding a complete takeover of BUT led nowhere. But in the meantime, Kingfisher bolstered its Comet unit through the purchase of NORWEB Retail, a division of NORWEB plc, with about 80 stores subsequently integrated into Comet. The company also gained electrical retail chains in Belgium (New Vanden Borre, with 19 stores) in late 1996 and in the Netherlands (BCC, with 17 stores) in mid-1997. In mid-1998 Kingfisher paid about £50 million (US $83.3 million) for a 60 percent stake in two German retailers--Promarkt Holding GmbH (Holdings) and Wegert Verwaltungs-GmbH and Co. Beteiligungs-KG--whose businesses were then merged. Together, the companies ran 53 Promarkt electrical stores, 108 smaller photographic equipment and film processing services outlets, and 11 units selling CDs and other entertainment items.

In general, the 1990s were a period of increasing sales and profitability. For the 1995 fiscal year, however, Kingfisher's profits dropped significantly, in large part due to sharp falls in profits at both Woolworths and Comet. As a result Alan Smith, who had been brought in as chief executive from Marks & Spencer two years earlier, was ousted in early 1995 and Mulcahy was demoted from chairman to chief executive (Smith and Mulcahy had reportedly clashed over how the company should be managed). By early 1996 John Banham had stepped into the chairmanship, having previously served as director general of the Confederacy of British Industry. Meanwhile, in April 1995 Kingfisher sold the Charlie Browns auto repair and parts chain, now considered "noncore," to Montinex for £19 million.

By fiscal 1998 the company had turned around the Woolworths and Comet chains primarily by restoring their price competitiveness and resolving distribution and systems troubles. For the year, Kingfisher achieved record sales of £6.41 billion (US $10.73 billion), an increase of 10.2 percent over 1997, and profit before tax and exceptional items of £505.5 million (US $846.3 million), an increase of 29.5 percent. B&Q had particularly impressive results, including a same-store sales increase of 12.6 percent.

Around the time that it was announcing these stellar performances, Kingfisher was also denying rumors that it was considering divesting Woolworths and Superdrug to concentrate on B&Q and its electrical retailing units. The company issued a statement saying that "both Woolworths and Superdrug are very much part of Kingfisher's future." It was worth noting, however, that Woolworths, the unit upon which the company was founded, was responsible for only about a quarter of overall sales and less than 20 percent of earnings by the mid-1990s. It appeared likely that at the dawn of a new century, and in the era of European union, the Kingfisher of the future would seek additional opportunities to expand beyond its Woolworths roots and to become even more geographically diverse.

Principal Subsidiaries: B&Q plc; Le Groupe Darty (France); Comet Group PLC; Woolworths plc; Superdrug Stores PLC; Chartwell Land plc; Entertainment UK Ltd.; The Music and Video Club Limited; New Vanden Borre (Belgium); BCC Holding Amstelveen B.V. (Netherlands); BUT S.A. (France; 26%).

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over 3 years ago

I purchased a vinyl record rack from Woolco during the 1970s. It is a system of interlocking wood joinery where no glue nor nails are used. Do you have photos of this type of rack?


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