THE world's first Woolworths store opened in Utica, New York - and closed three months later.

Undeterred by this setback Frank Winfield Woolworth had another go in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, extending his "nothing over five cents" policy to include goods costing ten cents. The idea was a raging success and Woolworths was well on the way to becoming a household name.

Things went so well that when Frank commissioned the construction of the Woolworth Building in New York, he paid for it in cash. When the building was completed in 1913 it was the tallest in the world - the first true skyscraper - a title it held until 1930 when the Chrysler Building was finished.

With a thriving chain established across America, Frank decided to branch out in Britain.

His first store in Liverpool left customers bemused with its well stocked open counters. By the time the second opened word had spread and riots broke out as customers battled to get inside. Soon crowd barriers had to be erected at every new store opening.

Frank's cousin, Fred, was put in charge of the British operation. He was ordered to grow a moustache to look more commanding to his staff. When he sailed to the UK he grew some whiskers - and shaved them off when he returned to the US.

Until the early 1980s, a town centre shopping trip that didn't include a visit to "Woolies", as the chain was affectionately known here, was practically unthinkable.

With its charmingly eccentric product mix - which ranged from plastic shower curtains to own-brand LPs - Woolworths felt as British as a Triumph TR7. Unfortunately, history shows that its business plans were just as unreliable as the famously untrustworthy sports car.

Plans to go head-to-head with department stores were tried twice, first in the 1970s under the Woolco brand and then in the 1990s with Big W. Both times the experiment ended in disaster, shoppers just didn't associate Woolies with big ticket items like expensive televisions and hi-fi equipment. They preferred a Fidelity music centre for fifty quid to Sony separates costing ten times as much.

Then there was Shoppers World, a kind of forerunner to Argos, where customers chose their goods from a discount catalogue then went to a store to buy. By the end of the 1970s there were 52 outlets. But dreams of a national chain came to nothing and the idea of a catalogue shop was shelved, just as Argos opened its 100th store.

In 1984 Woolworths started selling houses from "property desks" within selected stores. The idea - recently reintroduced by Ikea - was ahead of its time but management under-estimated the complexities of selling property and the scheme collapsed.

Three years later management were at it again, buying up Charlie Browns to sell cheap tyres and Tip Top drug stores in an abortive attempt to upstage Boots.

By 1990 they had tried just about everything - and failed. Woolies was still stuck in a "pick 'n mix" time warp. At least it had no competition at the bottom of the retail market.

That changed when Tesco began selling CDs and electrical goods. Things got worse with the entry of Aldi into the low cost consumer goods market. The buying power of these groups meant Woolies was no longer even the cheapest.

The emergence of pound stores was the final nail in the coffin.

Of course, there were cut backs, re-launches and re-branding exercises but Woolies management always seemed to turn the corner just a little bit too late.

Nostalgic shoppers can take heart, however. The brand may be about to vanish in the UK, but Woolworths still thrives in Australia (where it remains the biggest retailer of all), South Africa (where it is an upmarket store brand), Germany and Mexico.

Maybe one day, Woolworths will return to Britain - although it will take a very cunning plan indeed to restore it to its former pre-eminence.