Recently a friend gave me a book about how some of Britain’s major retailers began. This led me to consider writing about one of the major retailers in this country with which I had a past association. Most of us are aware that the concept of five and ten stores began in the US. Here in Australia, we called them variety stores and the business was dominated by two groups (Coles and Woolworths). The first retailer in Australia was Mary Reibey who was an orphan, convict and widowed mother of seven children. Mary had extensive property holdings in early Sydney. She opened her shop in Sydney in 1792. The first chain store, I believe was the Atlantic & Pacific (A & P) chain in the US established in 1859. It was not until 1914 that G. J. Coles opened their store in Melbourne and ten years later, in early December 1924 Woolworths opened their first store at the Imperial Arcade on the corner of Pitt & Castlereagh Sts. Many of our readers, particularly those from the UK or North America, may be interested to know that Woolworths in Australia and New Zealand had no relationship or connection to the world famous F. W. Woolworth Company’s international chain of variety stores. In fact, the consortium of five businessmen considered a number of names for the new store that they had proposed to establish in the Imperial Arcade. One name being considered was Wallworths Bazaar but during a reported meeting between two of the founding five consortium, Ernie Williams and Percy Christmas, Williams cheekily suggested that they call the new store “Woolworths” after the success of the F W Woolworth Co in the US & UK, Percy Christmas said “You wouldn’t be game to use that name”, to which Williams replied “Yes, I would – put on your hat and we’ll go up to the Registrar’s Office”. This account was disputed by another of the founding five, Stanley Chatterton who claimed that he suggested the name “Woolworths” after discovering that it was unregistered in Australia and after writing to the F.W. Woolworth company, who replied that they had no plans to operate in Australia and New Zealand.
The original prospectus read that the company proposed to retail Glassware, Crockery, Household Ironmongery, Soft goods, Fancy goods and Groceries. Hall & Humble owners of Adelaide’s Cash & Carry upon which the new Woolworths store was to be based, commented that “Everything seems to be in order with the exception that we advise you to leave Groceries alone”. Over the years “Groceries” are now the dominant business of Woolworths in Australia and New Zealand. Although Woolworths sold a very small range of foodstuffs in its variety stores it was in 1957 that they started to move more into groceries opening their first combined variety and grocery store at Mona Vale. This was in response to a rumour that Eddie Coles was driving to Brisbane to consider buying the Brisbane Cash & Carry (BCC) chain of 32 stores which prompted Woolworths boss, Percy Christmas to send Owen Price by plane to Brisbane to arrange the purchase of the chain. This was the start of the grocery war that saw both Coles and Woolworths start buying up local grocery chains around the nation. The grocery chains became the foundation of both companies supermarket empires of today. The names of Buttle’s, Sydney Cash & Carry, Shoey’s, Rodney’s, Roelf Voss, McIlrath’s, Dicksons, Goodways and Goodlands as well as many others have disappeared as these chains have been absorbed by the two retailing giants of the Australian grocery scene. Other chains such as Moran & Cato, Permewans, G & G, Derrin Bros., Warman’s, Franklins etc have fallen by the wayside unable to compete with the majors who have since been joined by the multi-national German based Aldi.