What is a Five and Dime?

Jennifer Voight

A five and dime is a store that sells a variety of inexpensive household items at discounted prices. The name five and dime refers to a category of stores that became popular in the late 19th century. The concept of the store began with the F. W. Woolworth stores that flourished in the United States and became the precursor to discount stores and dollar stores.

Today, convenience stores have widely replaced five and dimes.
Today, convenience stores have widely replaced five and dimes.

The first five and dime was opened by Frank Winfield Woolworth in 1879 in Utica, New York, but it offered only items that cost a nickel. Woolworth had already experimented with the concept of a five-cent table, a precursor to a clearance tables, in a dry goods store where he had worked. After the first store did poorly, Woolworth altered his plan and offered items that cost either five cents or 10 cents. He expanded and opened other stores, some of which failed while others were successful. By the end of the 19th century, Woolworth owned 54 five and dime stores in the United States.

Department stores may offer clearance sales that compete with discount store prices.
Department stores may offer clearance sales that compete with discount store prices.

These stores’ variety of items and lower prices appealed to immigrants and the poorer segments of the population. Woolworth added lunch counters that offered inexpensive restaurant food and added another draw for price-conscious shoppers. To offer his merchandise at lower prices than department stores, Woolworth negotiated his own agreements with store owners, effectively eliminating the middleman.

Other retailers were opening their own successful chains. Some of the most popular dime stores in the early 20th century included Ben Franklin, Duckwall-ALCO, and Walton’s Five and Dime. Some of these stores served as precursors for discount stores and convenience stores while changing and evolving to include higher price points and a greater variety of items. Kress’ store eventually became mega-retailer K-Mart, while Walton’s became Walmart.

Due to economic changes in the 1970s and 1980s, dime stores gradually faced more competition from more specialized discount stores. Eventually, five and dimes lost various sectors of their offerings to discount drug stores, home office stores, and discount clothing stores. Shoppers began flocking to suburban areas to shop, spending less time in downtown areas where many dime stores operated.

As items costing five cents or 10 cents became more uncommon and inflation grew, dollar stores became popular. Some dollar stores contain only items that cost one dollar, while other dollar stores offer items costing other prices. The term dollar store generally refers to a small store that offers inexpensive items at a discount, a concept not very far removed from the original concept of a five and dime store.

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