PA’s Five-and-Dime Stores: Retail Market Innovation
Mihaela Mfarej | Writer
The introduction of five-and-dime stores to the American public brought innovation to the business world and customers' spending habits. Pennsylvania was home to multiple companies that would go on to find domestic and international success. Most notably, Woolworth and Kress both ‘nickeled and dimed’ their way to success in small towns across the state.
Prior to five and dime stores, merchandise was held behind the counter with prices varying depending on the store and at the whim of the owner. Frank Woolworth introduced the first successful five and dime in Lancaster in 1879 and S.H. Kress followed behind in Northeast Pennsylvania in Nanticoke in 1887. These stores offered customers standard pricing, five and ten cents, and the ability to handle merchandise without the need for a store clerk.
Bryn Cooley, the collections manager for the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. explains, “Generally, they [Five and Dimes] seemed to prefer main street, small town America, coffee shops, a bank, and a corner grocery store.”
Although the term five and dime is virtually defunct today, successors would find prosperity in new business endeavors. S.S. Kresge of Kresge 5 & 10 would go on to operate K-Mart, and Woolworth opened and still operates Foot Locker. Famous names such as Sam Walton or K.R. Perry, each originally operating a Ben Franklin 5 & 10, would go on to open Walmart and Dollar Tree respectively.
All-American five-and-dime stores are not entirely a thing of the past. Pennsylvania is still home to two stores, including Mauch Chunk 5 & 10 located in Jim Thorpe, and Sines 5 & 10 in historic downtown Quakertown which have both been family-owned and operated for over 100 years.
Bill Harr, owner of Sines 5 & 10, explains the key to their success.
“A lot of the others [Five and Dimes] had nobody to take over,” he said. “There was no next generation for a lot of them, you have to be willing to do it more out of love than for the money.”
Modernization has kept this business model around, however, the term dollar store holds a different meaning to Americans today than it did in the early 1900s.