The 99¢ Only Store Is Dead! Long Live The 99¢ Only Store!
Question: When is the 99¢ Only store not the 99¢ Only store?
Answer: When it sells things for prices other than 99¢ only.
Ah, the 99¢ Only store! Regular readers of this blog – all, what?, six of you, know I love it. But I’ve become a little concerned at some changes I’ve been noticing there lately…
A little history:
Founded in 1982 by savvy businessman Dave Gold, the 99¢ Only chain held the line at exactly 99¢ for twenty-five long years when in 2007, a slightly more flexible pricing structure was introduced allowing the store to sell items at prices lower than 99 cents (39¢, 49¢, 59¢ – you get the idea).
And of course prior to that, you could (and can) buy multiples of an item for 99¢. (Old-timers such as myself remember a time not too, too long ago, when full-size candy bars were 4 for 99¢ only.)
2008 rolled around and things changed significantly, if you can call a penny ‘significant’: In September of that year, they added 99/100th of a cent to their signature price, so countless thousands of shelf tags that read 99¢ Only were pulled and replaced with new ones printed 99.99¢ Only (with the last two digits a bit smaller).
Rounding that hundredth up, shoppers began paying $1 for each item, and the chain, through a niggling technicality, managed to keep their name (mostly) honestly.
The 1¢ increase even made the news around Southern California – not bad publicity for the discount chain who was then able to explain that they’d kept everything under a buck for more than a quarter century and this teeny-tiny increase would allow them to continue to offer great deals. One measly penny on every item purchased would add up sufficiently to cover increasing costs. Perhaps someone at 99¢ Only headquarters had just watched “Superman III.”
Up to this point, in-store pre-recorded announcements usually ended with a sunny voice reminding us that we were shopping at a place where there was “Nothing over 99¢. Ever.” Unsurprisingly, new messages omitted the sign-off.
Many locations had that same slogan painted along the wall above a top shelf in their famous purple, blue and green color scheme. One might assume Corporate sent a memo to store managers advising them to get a can of white paint and a brush to get rid of the evidence, because this disappeared at this time, too.
But if you look carefully in some stores you can still figure out where it was…
Over the last few years, more and more items started hitting the stores that were more than 99¢ only.
The first item I noticed was a great big bottle of wine for $4.99 in their Burbank outlet over two years ago.
Other items soon followed in all the stores.
Initially, the signs on these items had an almost apologetic explanation below the more than 99¢ only price, as though it was an exasperated response to the umpteenth literal-minded customer challenging them with a whining “But your name is 99¢ Only!”
(Incidentally, that “one exception” for the eggs was the same “one exception” they made for milk, toilet paper and wine.)
Then as they introduced more and more more-than-99¢ Only items to their shelves, they stopped bothering to justify it at all.
Though in one case, they even tried to make us forget about their store name by distracting us with an enthusiastically positive spin on the more-than-a-buck price:
And that brings us up to this week, when I saw this at the front of their Canoga Park location (as well as on big decals on their doors):
Ooh, that can’t be good.
While prices higher than 99¢ are nothing new throughout the chain, that they’re calling attention to it is in itself noteworthy. I see it as a harbinger of higher prices: I bet we shoppers will very likely soon be seeing more and more items over the store’s celebrated 99.99¢ price point.
Over the last few months, every store I’ve gone to has changed their shelving, too. All the locations used to have shelves that were about five feet tall. Those have been pulled out and replaced with much taller units – the kind you see in most supermarkets – that can accommodate that much more merchandise.
Which makes sense when I remember a conversation I had back in December with an employee at this newly-opened location – the largest 99¢ Only store I’d ever been in – on La Tijera in Westchester:
She told me that they took over the space where a grocery store had gone out of business, and that all future 99¢ Only stores would open in similarly-sized venues. If that’s the case, it seems to me that 99¢ Only is making the slow transition from discount store to supermarket.
I remain wary but for now anyway, none of this changes my affection for the 99¢ Only store. It’s discount chains like this that have forced some manufacturers to keep their products under a buck, at least at the dollar store. (Though now even that seems in jeopardy.)
Like you, I exist on the Helper family of products, and by Godfrey, I haven’t been willing to pay more than a dollar for them since 99¢ Only has started carrying them.
I’m not the only one who feels this way – and not just about the Tetrazzini Tuna Helper, either, but about a lot of their merchandise: Friends who used to make fun of me for shopping at 99¢ Only have finally seen the light and now tell me about the great deals they themselves find there! (They’ve since found other things to make fun of me for.)
The 99¢ Only store has had some amazing bargains over the years and hopefully will continue to do so, so that this blog can continue to celebrate “What’s Bueno at the 99¢ Only Store.”
Store employees will continue to ask me not to take pictures in their stores.
I’ll continue to (surreptitiously) defy them.
And while it’s not quite the same, consider this: When I was growing up, there was an F. W. Woolworth’s in my hometown. Even into the 80s when it closed, everyone I knew referred to it as “The Five & Ten,” despite the fact that there was not – nor had ever been during my lifetime – any merchandise available at the cost of a nickel or a dime.
So it certainly makes this shopper think: How soon until we’re shopping at a 99¢ Only store where the only item labeled as such is the charmingly nostalgic and out-of-date sign out front?