The rise and fall of 99 Cents Only

Cars try to find parking as a customer makes her way to the 99 Cents Only store in Santa Monica on April 5, 2024.
Drivers try to find parking as a customer makes her way to the 99 Cents Only store in Santa Monica on April 5, 2024. The stores will be closing soon.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Thursday, April 11. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

The rise and fall of 99 Cents Only

Californians love a bargain. For more than 40 years, we’ve found one at 99 Cents Only. But the iconic store announced last week that it will close all of its locations.

99 Cents Only was an L.A. icon.

The first 13 customers who walked into 99 Cents Only at its Grand Opening in 1982 got an extra special deal: 99 cent televisions.


Founder David Gold didn’t look back. Within two years, the family opened two more locations. By 1991, there were two dozen. By 2011, 289 dotted the map across the South West.

“We were jam-packed from the beginning,” Howard Gold, David’s son, told The Times last week.

Two parts to the winning formula:

  • The price: “When I put a 99-cent sign on anything, it was gone in no time,” David Gold told The Times in 2003. “It was a magic number.”
  • The quality: “My dad really loved the merchandise,” daughter Karen Schiffer said in his 2013 Times obituary.

Here’s one great example reporters Andrea Chang and Laurence Darmiento found:

Just before the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the retailer purchased 500,000 authentic Olympic souvenir hats for 37 cents each. It priced them at 99 cents apiece, when other shops listed them at $8. The three 99 Cents Only stores were soon inundated with customers.

The store had been struggling for several years.

Los Angeles private equity firm Ares Management and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board bought 99 Cents Only in 2011, for $1.6 billion.

The sale saddled the company with a huge debt load. COVID changed the nature of shopping. And ultimately, the company couldn’t stick to the 99 cent price tag. Whatever the reason, customers reacted poorly.


Read more about the company’s stunning fall here.

I can’t be the only one with fond memories of 99 Cents Only.

When I think of the store, I’m transported back to high school, when you could get three bars or boxes of your favorite name-brand candy for under $1. This paired nicely with a movie night at the dollar theater across the street — and saved teenage me a fortune by avoiding inflated concession stand prices. You just had to wear the right jacket to sneak in your low-cost contraband.

And as my educator wife can attest, 99 Cents Only stores are invaluable for underpaid, overworked teachers looking to stock up on school supplies and classroom decorations.

The bargain store was a great equalizer.

Proud penny-pincher and Times columnist Gustavo Arellano eulogized the SoCal staple this week.


“Even though it was a multibillion-dollar company, 99 Cents Only operated under a premise straight from the Great Depression: a fair shake for everyone who entered,” Gustavo wrote. “Here, the retiree shopped alongside the hipster, and the only colors that mattered were the bright blue and pink on the marquee of each store.”

Many of the company’s stores operate in “food deserts.” With hundreds of stores preparing to close, thousands of people in communities that lack access to healthy, affordable food will have one less option.

“I make OK money, and buying here helps me. But imagine if you’re on WIC? If you’re on Social Security? You need a place like this. Are people now supposed to go to Ralphs? Or Target? With what money?” Victor Barrios told Gustavo.

There’s one final bargain.

Going-out-of-business sales began Friday and are expected to end April 19, with prices storewide slashed by up to 30%.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team


Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor and Saturday reporter
Christian Orozco, assistant editor
Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

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