Why was Woolworth such a popular name?

The thread here and stories on BBC about the bankruptcy of Woolworths in the UK got me to do a little reading on Woolworths chains around the world. What I found odd was this: while the F.W. Woolworth company is responsible for some of the Woolworths chains past and present (US, Canada, UK, and Cyprus), the Australian/New Zealand chain was an independent chain that (according to an uncited statement on Wikipedia) took its name from the original, and the South African Woolworths chain has nothing to do with the original at all.

My question-- why? Why did the name “Woolworths” ring true for Australia or South Africa? Did F.W. Woolworth license the name? Did the folks who started the chains “borrow” the name to imply they were part of the chain, or to connote inexpensive goods? And why Woolworths specifically, and not Sears, Kresge, or Macy’s?

I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me that Woolworth started something of a revolution in High Street (Main Street) shopping, not just in America, but in the UK, in the early 20th century. As such, Woolworth became a household name not only in America, but across the British Commonwealth.

The other companies you mention haven’t really had any influence outside of the US (I’ve never even heard of Kresge).

Only going by Wikifor the moment, but it may well be relevant.

The NZ company broke from the Aussie company during the century. So – by the looks, it’s down to imitation being the sincerest flattery.

As noted before, Woolworth’s was very successful in the UK. Australia and South Africa were parts of the British Empire. There was a lot of trans-imperial* travel. Modern day notions of trademarks were a little more flexible back then - and the idea of suing someone on a different continent for an infringement would have been tricky to say the least.

  • totally made up word

Whilst the Wiki page is uncited, the information there is correct- I used to work for Woolworth’s Supermarkets here in Australia and they freely acknowledged during induction that the founders took the name owning to a loophole of sorts in Trademark Registration that basically meant there was nothing to stop them doing it at the time (in the 1920s).

Originally the name was going to be “Wallworths”, IIRC, until they found out they could call themselves “Woolworth’s” and get away with it- as Ice Wolf says, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

Incidentally, the Woolworths in NZ is now owned by the Woolworth’s in Australia, courtesy of a holding company, in the form of Progressive Enterprises…

I don’t know if I’d call it a loophole, exactly. Before the 2004 Madrid Protocol, a trademark had to be registered in each territory separately; I imagine that Australia and New Zealand were just two of the countries that F W Woolworth didn’t think to register in. I dare say the antipodes seemed a lot further away in those days.

Thanks for the replies thus far, everyone. Makes me wonder if I might not run into an imitation Wal-Mart convenience store chain somewhere in the world, or some McDonald’s gyro huts.

Out of curiosity, do you know if the Safeway grocery trademark was also “borrowed” from the US chain? (Heck, there’s a grocery chain in Indiana called Safeway that’s unrelated to the US one, so maybe the name just connotes “grocer.”)

The word sounds good to me.

The South African chain is still an odd duck to me, since it was a spin-off of a well-known British retailer (Marks & Spencer IIRC) yet bears the name of another, yet unrelated well-known British retailer. And, at the time of founding, all within the British Empire. Were trademarks not uniform within the Empire?

IIRC, the US chain started some supermarkets in Australia in the '60s, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle anymore in the mid-80s, and flicked their interest (and the stores) to Woolies in Australia.
ISTR (and wiki confirms) that Woolies are also phasing out the “Safeway” brand (which is only found in Victoria, AFAIK) and are just going to have all their supermarkets here as “Woolworths”, the same as they did with the “Roelf Vos” and “Purity” brands in Tasmania.

Additional Fun Fact: Big W was started as a Woolworths Australia/Wal Mart Joint Venture. It wasn’t the rousing success they thought it would be and Wal-Mart pulled out sometime in the '80s, but the decor and “style” (including POS material etc) of the two retailers (Big W/ Wal-Mart) is eerily similar- if you’ve been in one, you’ll have an odd sense of deja vu in the other, even though they’re completely unrelated nowadays.

This makes me wonder where all the Woolworths in Mexico came from, since AFAIK they no longer existing in the USA. The branding in Mexico looks the same as I remember the branding in the USA when I was a child. (Off to Wikipedia.)

Speaking of Kresge…
I remember an S. S. Kresge store in downtown Peterborough when I was a kid. Later, it became a K-Mart, and only within the last few years did the K-Mart decline and close. It was pretty crappy towards the end.

There are two reasonably large supermarket chains here in MD and PA (and possibly NJ and DE) named Giant.

Ironically they were both bought out by Royal Ahold but prior to that, they were both named Giant. How does that happen?

Notice that Kresge starts with a Big K. A.K.A. Kmart. S.S. Kresge opened the first Kmart in the early 60s and died shortly thereafter. The corporation became The Kmart Corporation in the late 70s and is now owned by Sears Holdings Corp. (no more Roebuck in that name).

If you find anything out, post about it here! :slight_smile:

(In the bankruptcy thread, someone mentions a German Woolworth that is still going, too… anyone familiar with that one?)

Here is the Wiki article about that company :-


And here is its website :-


Yeah, I thought that was probably it after someone mentioned Kmart later. So I probably have heard or read the name Kresge somewhere, at some time, and forgotten. Kmart isn’t really a household name here either.

I guess my surprise arises from the apparent fact that Woolworth seems to have been the only (or at least most prominent) big-name US retailer from the early 20th century to expand overseas, creating true spin-offs (Cyprus, UK), and inspiring others who felt the name worthy of taking (Australia, South Africa). I’d have assumed Sears or Montgomery Ward would have blazed the trail.

I also found it interesting, while looking at the Australian Woolworth website, that while the name was deemed worth copying, the idea of customer self-service (which was what differentiated Woolworth’s from other general stores of the time) wasn’t; the US operations seems to have had self-service in the 19th century, while the Australian chain took nearly thirty years from its founding to start self-service in 1955 .

So when you were a kid, and you pointed at someone’s unstylish shoes and laughed, where did you claim that their mother bought their shoes?

(Ha ha, your mom buys your shoes at Kmart!)

Which brings to mind Woolco.

Woolco was a pretty big thing here, was very similar to Kmart and was owned by F.W. Woolworth Co. Woolworth’s was like a Five & Dime, whereas Woolco was a cheap department store. These stores were in the U.S. and Canada and also in the U.K. according to Wikipedia.