The "dime store", also known as the "five and ten" or "five and dime", was an American institution in the first half of the 20th century. The last ones disappeared in the late 1990’s; their decline started in the 1960’s with the advent of discount stores.1
I personally always felt that dime stores were made with children in mind. The one I knew had a comic book rack just inside the door and nobody seemed to mind when kids spent an hour "just looking". At right angles to this was the candy section with solid squares of fudge in glass cases, ready to be weighed and sold by the pound, jawbreakers, jellybeans, licorice whips and other goodies.
There was a department in the back with goldfish, canaries, and white mice, together with assorted collars for the dog I hoped to have one day. Another area carried marbles, 20 to a mesh bag, with the larger "shooters" sold individually. There were pocket knives and cheap jewelry, racks of picture postcards, lurid masks just before Halloween, valentines in February, and a fairyland at Christmas.
I grew up in the Midwest, in a small town where children could roam freely. I must have been no more than seven or eight when, all by myself, I went to the local Kresge's dime store to buy a birthday present for my mother. I hesitated between a tiny white and gilt figurine priced at twenty-five cents and a leatherette change purse marked down to twenty cents. I chose the cheaper of the two. Later, thinking I had been too stingy, I put five pennies in the purse as part of the gift. She told me the pennies were exactly right; they would bring luck. It is in my memory that, at that time, Kresge's prices ranged from five cents up to one dollar.
The first dime stores routinely sold most of their merchandise for five or ten cents. This was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a modest house could be purchased for less than a thousand dollars and beef steak sold for ten cents a pound.
This was also the era when retail marketing was changing in the United States. The chain store system of merchandising had started in 1859 when what became the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, commonly known as the A&P, started as a shop in lower Manhattan selling teas, coffees, spices and other staples transported in the holds of clipper ships. Once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the firm began shipping its goods to outlets in other parts of the country. Unlike independent shopkeepers with a limited amount of capital with which to purchase goods for resale, the chain stores could offer lower prices through bulk buying. Mass marketing had been discovered, the art of taking a very small profit on many transactions rather than a hefty profit on just a few transactions.
The success of the A&P grocery chain was not lost on other entrepreneurs. It particularly appealed to a type of shopkeeper who sold what, in that day, were called "sundries": a writing tablet, a package of needles, a pair of shoelaces, a tin of stove polish, all items which could be found individually at various specialty outlets but were grouped together in a small shop.
These little shops were the ancestors of the dime store, the major difference being that they were owned and operated by individuals and the dime stores were part of a chain of outlets. By the early years of the 20th century the dime store field was dominated by two giant retail firms: S. S. Kresge Company and the F. W. Woolworth Company.
Sebastian Spering Kresge opened a modest five and dime store in downtown Detroit in 1899. Specializing in discounted merchandise, he expanded to 85 outlets in less than 15 years. In the meantime, Frank and Charles Woolworth had been dime store operators since 1879, incorporating in the United States in 1905, and expanding into Great Britain in 1909. In 1911 they bought out six small U.S. chains and launched a national effort at low-priced mass marketing. It was immediately very successful.
A measure of this success is the Woolworth Building in Manhattan. Built in 1913, it was the tallest building in the world until 1930 and is still considered by many the most elegant office building ever designed. The building cost Frank Woolworth $13.5 million, which he paid in cash, in nickels and dimes. The Woolworth Building was sold in 1998 for $126.5 million.
Both the Woolworth Company and Kresge’s succeeded by undercutting the prices of independent local merchants. Woolworths, as it came to be known, also introduced the practice of putting the merchandise in bins and on tables so the customer could examine it before purchase. Prior to that time, a sales clerk stood behind a counter and brought out the items one by one as they were asked for. It was a long way from self-service, which did not appear until after the Second World War, but it put a different aspect on the relationship between buyer and seller.
Another innovation of Woolworths was to have a lunch counter inside the store. This encouraged people to treat the store as a general gathering place, much like a food court in today’s shopping malls. It was at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina in early 1960 that four African-American students asked to be served at a segregated lunch counter and thereby established a rallying point in the U.S. civil rights movement.
In the 1920’s the Kresge Company began opening "discount" locations where items were sold for $1 or less. These stores, identified by their green fronts, were often located next to the traditional "red-front" Kresge five-and-dime stores. It was also Kresge who began newspaper advertising promotions, the forerunners of radio promotions in the 1940’s and, finally, TV commercials in the late 1960’s.
The biggest changes in retailing came after the Second World War. Hanger-type buildings began to spring up on the outskirts of cities, the first real discount stores. Kresge changed with the times and opened its first Kmart discount department store in 1962. By 1977, 95 percent of the S.S. Kresge sales were made in Kmart outlets. The company officially changed its name to Kmart Corporation and, in 1987, the last of the remaining Kresge dime stores were sold.
The F.W. Woolworth Company did not do as well. Woolworths Limited, founded in the United Kingdom almost in tandem with the American chain, was sold off in 1982. It is still beloved in the U.K. and is affectionately known as "Woolies". The popularity of the original Woolworth firm is demonstrated by the fact that in 1924 a group of Australian businessmen established Woolworths Limited when they found that the name "Woolworths" was available for registration in New South Wales. This corporation is alive and well today in Australia. Another unrelated organization, Woolworths Limited, was established in 1931 in South Africa and today has almost 200 stores in Africa and the Mid-East.
When the five-and-dime concept evolved into the discount store in the 1960’s, Woolworth established a discount chain called Woolco. This closed in the United States twenty years later, with the Canadian subsidiary surviving until 1994 when the remaining stores were sold to Wal-Mart. The last 400 F.W. Woolworth dime stores were closed in the United States in 1997. The company, which operates a number of other retail chains, is now known by the name of its top performer, Foot Locker, Inc.
Kmart, after its rousing success as a discount giant, emerged from a Chapter 11 reorganization process in mid-2003, and is battling for its corporate life against Wal-Mart and Target. The Woolworth Building on Broadway is still elegant. Comic books cost much more than a dime today.
1 The 5&10 is still alive! A msg from smileloki assured me that there are dime stores in New England (Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.) and interrobang knows of a Ben Franklin 5 - 10 in Ohio.
Dutchess remembers the bell over the door of "her" 5&10 - anybody else have memories to share? Msg me, please.