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SOME OF CHAIN’S STORES WILL BE CONVERTED

Woolworth’s to Shut East Broad St. Store After 68 Yrs. in Westfield

By PAUL J. PEYTON

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader

After nearly seven decades as a tradition in downtown Westfield, Woolworth’s on East Broad Street is among 400 stores slated to be closed by Woolworth’s Corporation as part of the company’s plan to shut its domestic Woolworth general merchandise business.

Whether or not the town’s store will be converted to one of Woolworth’s other trade names remains to be seen. The store is believed to have at least two years if not more on its lease. The store offered a variety of general merchandise items in addition to a food service counter.

One hundred of the Woolworth’s stores will be converted to the corporation’s Foot Locker, Champs Sports, and other athletic or specialty formats. Among those stores destined for conversion, 10 are located in New Jersey, according to a Woolworth’s spokeswoman. She said a decision has yet to be made on which stores will be converted. The company operates 34 stores in the state.

Woolworth’s plans to lay off 9,200 employees. In addition to the Westfield store, which has 12 employees, the company has stores in Bloomfield, Hackensack, Bernardsville and Somerville. The company shut 40 percent of its stores in 1988. Another wave of stores began to be shut in 1993 in a cost-cutting move by the company.

The department store, which made the five and dime store format famous, was faced with increased competition from the likes of Wal-Mart and other discounters. Woolworth stores will stay open in Germany and Mexico, according to published reports.

If Woolworth’s decides to close rather than convert the Westfield store, it could leave two significant spaces along side each other in the downtown area.

Auster’s, an appliances and furniture store which closed several years ago, occupied about 13,000 square feet, according to Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathryn L. Broihier. She said Woolworth’s has a square footage of about 8,000 square feet.

Joseph Spector, proprietor of The Leader Store and Chairman of Westfield Downtown Management Corporation, the town’s Special Improvement District, said he believes Woolworth’s square footage is much higher, perhaps even exceeding that of Auster’s.

In commenting on the end of the Woolworth’s era in town, Mrs. Broihier said the closing of the stores follows "the natural cycle of things."

"They had a great location. There was no reason they couldn’t have taken that place and turned it into something like Drug Fair to attract the shoppers," she said. "It’s roughly 8,000 square feet and that is going to leave a huge vacuum."

She said unless the company sublets the store, it would make more sense for the building to be divided up into smaller units.

"It’s just very devastating, the fact that it (Woolworth’s) and next store to it Auster’s, which is 13,000 (square feet), leaves us a tremendous space. But they are adjacent and are the same owners (landlord)," Mrs. Broihier said.

Mr. Spector said he does think subdividing the Woolworth’s space makes sense, given the unusual L-shape of the building which also features columns and high ceilings.

He said his grandmother used to come to Westfield by trolley just to shop at Woolworth’s. Meanwhile, he remembers the store from his childhood as a place to buy school supplies, to eat at the lunch counter or to try and win a free sundae by picking from balloons with strings which were located behind the counter.

Mr. Spector said the loss of Woolworth’s will create a void in town due to the wide variety of merchandise it offered, including stationary items and tools. He said Drug Fair and Baron’s Drug Store could fill the void for stationary items.

He said the chain lost its competitive edge over the years to the likes of Caldor’s and the now-defunct Korvette’s. He believes the property owner of the Auster’s and Woolworth’s buildings might want to develop both sites jointly, perhaps with the help of Woolworth’s.

Woolworth’s is planning to begin liquidation sales by the end of the month, the spokeswoman said. Those stores not converted will either be sold or closed along with the company’s distribution center in Denver, Pennsylvania.

Roger N. Farah, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Woolworth’s, stated that the company will concentrate on its more profitable athletic and specialty retailing formats, including Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker, Champs Sports and the Northern Group of apparel stores.

The Northern Group includes Northern Getaway children’s wear, Northern Elements, After Thoughts costume jewelry, San Francisco Music Company, and Kinney shoe stores.

"This company has invested significant resources in trying to revitalize the F.W. Woolworth’s chain, including time, money and management’s attention," said Mr. Farah.

As soon as news broke over the local television and radio stations, the Chamber of Commerce office became flooded with inquiries regarding the status of the Westfield store, Mrs. Broihier said.

The roots of the F.W. Woolworth’s chain can be traced back to 1879. F.W. Woolworth’s Co., a subsidiary of Woolworth Corporation, currently operates general merchandise stores in 35 states, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, employing 3,600 full-time and 5,600 part-time workers. In its heyday, there were 1,465 Woolworth stores.

The Westfield store manager, who only recently took over the store, declined to talk to reporters. The corporation’s headquarters in Manhattan handled press inquiries.

In connection with the store closings, the company plans inventory sales during which time all merchandise will be offered to customers at "significantly reduced prices," according to a press release issued July 17.

In addition, the stores’ fixtures, including display cases, soda fountain items, signs and furniture, will be offered for sale. The company expects to close the stores over the next several months.

The company has said it also plans to change its corporate name "to better reflect its global retailing formats." A new name will be announced later this year.

Woolworth Corporation currently operates 7,558 stores in North America, Australia and Asia, including Foot Locker, Northern Reflections, After Thoughts and Champs Sports. The company also operates general merchandise stores in Germany, Mexico and Canada.

The company spokeswoman noted that 20 of the 100 stores slated for conversion will be put on the "fast track" and open under their new banners by this December. The New Jersey conversions will be within the athletic footwear category.

Woolworth’s Eastbay Inc. division, which markets athletic footwear, apparel, equipment and licensed private label products, will not factor into the conversions.

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TheWestfield Leader.
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10/25/97.

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