longwhitekid

Research Sucks: Woolworths and the Advent of American Style

In Food Fair, Foodtown Supermarkets, Lynn Mall, Progressive Enterprises, Woolworth's Food Fair, Woolworth's stores, Woolworth's supermarkets, woolworths on July 17, 2011 at 10.46

This is a recent Trademe purchase – a vintage box of “Super-Sip” brand drinking straws made by Woolworths. As it turns out, I have since discovered they were also produced in Australia; albeit in a different main colour scheme of dark red – as opposed to blue. I love the graphics which are different on all sides, and it still has most of the original green and yellow straws inside. These were the days when they used to actually put some effort in, and remember, a lot of it had to be done by hand!

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It’s a common misconception that Woolworths Ltd in the Antipodes is part of the F.W. Woolworth Company in the United States. It has no connection. Woolworths had been present in Australia from 1924 (Her Majesty’s Arcade, Sydney, was the first store) and in New Zealand from 1929 when it was founded by Percy Christmas , at which point the Oz and Kiwi interests were separated.

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The Wikipedia page for Woolworths claims that its first food store opened in Auckland in 1956, and supermarkets in 1971.

Then it also goes on to state the first supermarket opened in Henderson, West Auckland (which was the nearest town of significance to my home as a child) in 1967. The discrepancies are confusing. Depending on if and how the “Woolworths Food Fair” stores actually differed from a “Woolworths supermarket”, and when the actual “Food Fair” banner was phased out for good, would deem whether either of the dates provided is correct, if at all.

We know that Wikipedia is a little unreliable to say the least, and as far as I know this information is for the most part incorrect. The first Woolworths “Food Fair” (food supermarket, as opposed to “Variety Store”) was opened at Panmure in 1956; and then the next one in  New Lynn, West Auckland – not Henderson, on 30 October 1963. “Lynn Mall” was the first “American Mall”-style shopping centre in New Zealand. The Lynn Mall “Woolworths Food Fair” was the second separate, dedicated food store with cash register checkouts, trolleys, automated doors  and parking like the supermarkets we know today.

Further to that, the Progressive Enterprises site recently started claiming in their history section that Woolworths opened the first Food Fair in Panmure in 1956. This is technically correct, however up until 1963 “Food Fair ” was more or less a department within “Woolworth’s Variety Stores”, as told to me directly by Lance Bates who worked for the company for a number of years:

“Woolworths had a number of “Food Fairs” around Auckland and I guess other places as well. Each of the two main city stores in Queen Street had one tucked away in the back; and the Karangahape Road store, too. Taupo had one I know, as I have a photo of it.  As for the Lynn Mall Food Fair, what I wrote about it is correct. It was within the first drive-in shopping centre built in NZ and opened in 1963. The other Food Fairs were  just sections of the variety stores and no parking other than on-street parking”.

So far I reckon that the Progressive company information is a bit of a cockamamie history amongst a shoddy timeline where I’ve spotted several mistakes including a glaringly funny one; Progressive claim that the second Foodtown of 1961 had a below-cost opening special of Weet-Bix for 19 cents, Wattie’s peach slices for 21 cents, and potatoes for 29 cents per ten pounds. They even provide a clipping although amazingly…decimal wasn’t introduced for more than six years! Enough said.

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I’d say there’s not much doubt I have the story right, as I consulted with the very person who set up and managed the first supermarket when I was compiling the post “Snap ‘Em All” in February on “Lynmall” and Woolworths Variety/Food Fair.

http://longwhitekid.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/snap-em-mall/

So, Lance was able to give me first hand facts as he was right there, and provided photographic proof. I guess all this research and blogging isn’t entirely useless after all!

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Advertisement for Wellington Woolworths Stores, 1934.

Given the information I was in possession of, I was sure of my estimate of the mid 1960s for this item. It does look like it could be a bit older than that and now – it’s hard to say.

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Addendum late August 2012: Based on some information that came in this week I may have to eat my Woolworths (Variety Store) crepe paper party hat and rewrite this article. It seems Woolworths may actually be able to claim their Panmure store as the first New Zealand supermarket proper, depending on definition.  According to my source, it was a freestanding building with Woolworths split into two under one roof; a Woolworths Variety Store, and a Woolworths Food Fair, which was the first instance a food store was separated as opposed to being  a department  the general variety format. So there you have it. And hopefully that’s final! (but I get the feeling it’s not).

Did Panmure have the proper set-up with parking around the store, trolleys and cash register check-outs? I suppose I am trying to verify, if Woolworths Food Fair Panmure can claim the title of the first proper supermarket as we more or less know them today, in comparison to Foodtown of Otahuhu in 1958, which definitely was a stand-alone building and had parking and trolleys, air conditioning, automated doors and cash register check-outs.It all comes down to those details I think because the difference is previously there was self-service to a degree, no matter how insignificant – but not all of the features, of what would be termed “American style”. (I am excepting having your groceries taken to the car, which was probably a new advent and can be disqualified from impeding the definition).

It was partly the  McKenzies chain of stores who were responsible for the introduction of the “‘American style” features in the shopping experience in Aotearoa after founder John  R. H. McKenzie observed the rise of the five and dime store-style experience after a 1928 trip to the U.S., and upon returning to New Zealand, promptly relocated and restyled every one of his twenty plus stores modelled after this format. Although McKenzies really was in the “variety store” category of selling general merchandise, so the award may go to a store, or small chain of stores, named Fletcher’s of which there has been rumblings of  acknowledgement as being the first one  to offer any sort of “self service” –  it’s possible this refers to stores owned by J. Fletcher who had a small number of stores in the Ohakune and Raetihi, (Manawatu-Wanganui) and Matawhereo, Gisborne areas in the 1900s-1910s. The last mention I can find is 1920 and they seem to have disappeared by the following decade. But it is more likely to be Fletcher Bros who were  running general stores based in Christchurch and Ashburton areas in the 1890s-1910s.   Self Help established in 1922 strictly falls into the grocery store category and  of course was well known for popularizing the personal shopping experience, hence their name…although for quite some time customers only selected their groceries and bought them to the counter to be weighed out and packaged by the storekeeper (so not much of a change, really, except less use of ladders, probably). But still, none are food markets as such. Although Wardell’s had a supermarket in Wellington by 1956, again it was not completely self service so is also removed from the running.

Unless the Panmure Food Fair had all the “new” features I list earlier to qualify, then Foodtown will probably keep it’s claimed title of “the first American-style supermarket in New Zealand”. And Food Fair of Lynn Mall relegated to ” the first dedicated  supermarket in an American-style mall”.

And thus it goes… Anyway, apologies to Progressive for dubbing you “cockamamie” – it was Wikipedia’s fault…honest. If in doubt blame a Wiki I say…any Wiki. That said, someone linked the Woolworths page to this article and some asshat immediately deleted the information. Companies really don’t like it when you “mess” with their “history”. And I am still waiting for death threats from someone over the Iced Vovo thing. 


 Woolworths Ltd of Levin, November 1949, National Library NZ  collection.

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Addendum early September 2012: I’m sad to say that one of New Zealand’s longest running chains, Woolworths, is over in New Zealand. When the Woolworths NZ business, under the auspices of Progressive Enterprises (Foodtown, Countdown, (ex) Georgie Pie etc) was acquired by Woolworths Australia Ltd in 2005, a decision was made to phase out the brand and move to the Countdown banner by 2014. This happened a lot faster than anticipated; by 2010 all South Island stores were gone. By the end of 2011 all North Island stores had been changed over. Technically there is just one store left in Mount Manganui, Auckland. However  but for all intents and purposes, the Woolworths brand is defunct.

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Addendum early September 2012: As I said I was pretty sure this whole thing wasn’t over yet. I was right! It’s come to light that Woolworths Food Fair Panmure did not have parking. It also  apparently did not have trolleys – but hand baskets.  So the tally is now as follows…

Woolworths Food Fair Panmure was the first separate food market in New Zealand but was not a stand-alone building, and did not have the complete American-style features. Disqualified!

Foodtown Otahuhu was the first stand-alone food market with all American-style features.Therefore it was the first supermarket in New Zealand in 1958

Foodtown Takanini was the second stand-alone food market with all American-style features.Therefore it was the second supermarket in New Zealand in 1961.

Woolworths Food Fair in New Lynn was the first dedicated food market in New Zealand with all American-style features in an American-style  mall . So technically, it was the third supermarket in in New Zealand, but the first supermarket in a shopping centre. 

No, really, I am done now! 

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  1. It isn’t accurate to say that Lynnmall was the “first regional shopping centre” in New Zealand. I take it you also added that comment to the Wiki page? There were hundreds of regional shopping centres in the country — that is, after all, what a few shops servicing a region actually is. Lynnmall was the first “American-style shopping mall”, where the shops were centred around a (then) open-air courtyard, a larger version of the old arcade concept. The term “American-styled shopping centre” was as it was promoted in the newspapers from 29 October 1963, the day before opening.

    But you’re right as to Woolworths being one of the key tenants at Lynnmall right from the start, the others being Farmers’ and Milne & Choyce. I’ve seen a movie recording of the opening day — a great site. I would have been all on two months old then!

  2. That does make sense. I was directly quoting from the person that was there overseeing the Woolworths stores being set up at that venue, so I will always go with a first hand account over anything else (until I know otherwise). Sadly from here I only have access to research up to 1945 via Papers Past (until that progresses) which is always excellent to corroborate information, so I am often not able to gain access to material that would round things out more if I cannot find it from other sources. Thanks for the correction and definition, Lisa. I consider you to be my historical fairy godmother you know!

    • Send me an email, and I’ll scan and send over the newspaper promo from 29 October 1963. The shopping mall initially referred to itself as “New Lynn Regional Shopping Centre”, which may have led to the confusion — until you think about the meaning.

  3. I would say that is where the confusion came from, because my source definitely used the word regional to describe the mall.

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