That Mall is sick and that Store is dead!

November 23, 2021

Woolco Closes (and what came next) (1982)

Filed under: dead chains,dead stores,Hampton,Roses,then & now — Anita @ 9:20 pm

This time of year, I’m always reminded of discount department stores that we no longer have. The department store variety is getting smaller and smaller here in the United States, especially with Kmart pooting out its final stores slowly but surely. To me, Target still has the soul of those old stores.

One discounter that failed spectacularly in the early 1980s was Woolco, a subsidiary of the smaller discount store, Woolworth. About 19 years after the company began, it announced in September of 1982 that it was shutting down:

They were losing so much money, that in the first six months of 1983, Woolco lost $20 million. 1 The chain had become too big, too fast. 7 Woolco had been in trouble for quite some time, but kept opening stores — up until the very end. 2  In Boutte, Louisiana, a store opened on September 29th — three days after the announcement that Woolco was going out of business:

[I had to pay $3 for that article, hope you like it]

Nearly 25,000 people lost their jobs in the closing. At one store the employees found out via reporters calling:

Some Woolco employes learned that the stores would close from reporters calling to question their bosses. A woman at a store in Burke, who answered the telephone for Woolco store manager F. Moreau, began crying.
“Thanks for making my day,” she told a reporter. “Thanks a lot.” Moreau said he had not had a chance to inform his staff before the phone calls began. “I just found out myself,” he said. 6

There was one glimmer of hope that the stores would stay open. Sheik Mohammed al Fassi was interested in making an offer for the troubled chain, citing that he wanted to save the workers’ jobs. 3  Days later, lawyers for the Sheik said that they had convinced al Fassi to not buy the chain: 

With that consideration gone, the going out of business sales began on November 22nd, and of course like with any going of business sale, there was complaints that Woolco had raised prices before the sale. 5

In early 1983, Woolco locations were winding down business. This report from a store in Alexandria, Virginia: 

Naked plastic hangers dangled in long rows like windblown cornstalks stripped of their grain in what used to be the women’s department of the Woolco store on Route 1 south of Alexandria.Coathangers were about all that was left Saturday and they were for sale: seven for $1.The piles of ice skates looked interesting until you tried to match up a pair the same size and style. Oil filters for Subarus or some such car, a rats’ nest of radiator hoses and a very nice selection of auto registration holders struggled for attention in the automotive department. Mis-mixed paint, mis-matched shoes, misanthropic clerks–some choice.The security guards were superfluous. What remained of a $1 million plus inventory was barely enough to put on a good garage sale. Like suburbanites willing to take any offer so long as they don’t have to haul the stuff back to the basement, Woolco workers were pleading for someone to buy what was left. 2

There were two Woolco stores in the area I grew up in, in Williamsburg and Hampton, Virginia. 

I don’t know much about the Williamsburg location, other that it became a Roses a few months after Woolco closed. The Roses shut down in 2002 because its lease wasn’t renewed. I wonder if it was because they wanted that shopping center to become more “high end” like everything else was getting in Williamsburg around this time. 

Six years later, I would come to this building when it was a Marshalls, and I wondered why the entire building wasn’t used. Seriously, one side of the building looked abandoned.  I took this picture way back then. Turns out that was the Garden Center for that Roses. The nearly 50 year old building was later torn down in 2019 when Marshalls moved into a new building.

Now, the one in Hampton, that one I know. Obviously, not as a Woolco, because they shut down about three months before I was born. The store was a fixture of the new Todd Center, opening on November 3, 1971. 

A little over a year after Woolco closed, the building became a Bradlees store — after initially denying that the store was opening a location in Hampton. 8



(I love how that kid’s stupid “Go for it!” shirt got a mention)

By the beginning of 1989, Bradlees was gone after only five years. A tiny blip in retail history time. 

In October of 1989, a flashy new locally-based electronics store, FX opened in the old Bradlees store. 

You know, nobody needed a motorized walkway in an electronics store. 

The shopping center finally got it right on November 4, 1991 when we got Big Lots. Big lots opened in the corner, and later Office Max opened in the other half of the old Woolco/Bradlees.  I miss it when Big Lots had crazy stuff. I remember as a kid going in there and seeing Barbie dolls from Korea, notebooks with Kelly Bundy on the cover, tang juice boxes. 

  1. “Woolworth Will Close All Woolco Stores.” Daily Press, September 25, 1982.
  2. Knight, Jerry. “Woolco, Memco Closings Show Lack of Class.” Washington Post, January 17, 1983. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/business/1983/01/17/woolco-memco-closings-show-lack-of-class/8ed29aea-fcb3-4f92-ae0e-1134eb7686c6/.
  3. “Woolco Awaits Sheik.” Daily Press, September 28, 1982.
  4. “Saudi Sheik Won’t Acquire Woolco Chain.” Tallahassee Democrat , October 5, 1982.
  5. “Md. Seeks Ban On Woolco Sale Price Increases.” Washington Post. Accessed November 15, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1982/12/28/md-seeks-ban-on-woolco-sale-price-increases/8a5f719e-4db2-4a4c-a1bc-47faaa1480b9/.
  6. Brown, Warren, and Thomas Lippman. “Woolworth Will Shut Down All 336 Woolco Discount Stores.” Washington Post, September 25, 1982. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1982/09/25/woolworth-will-shut-down-all-336-woolco-discount-stores/45da5b4c-9570-46b0-9a02-023bb1f89a63/.
  7. Oklahoman.com. “Woolco’s Quit-Business Sale Drawing Crowds in 40 States,” November 23, 1982. https://oklahoman.com/article/2004020/woolcos-quit-business-sale-drawing-crowds-in-40-states/.
  8. “Bradlee’s Won’t Open Stores on Peninsula” Daily Press, January 4, 1983. 

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