Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown – Hills Department Store

“Hills is where the toys are!” You probably remember that jingle if you grew up in Youngstown. While most stores expanded their toy selection at Christmas, Hills had a great toy department year round, and an attractive layaway program for parents who couldn’t afford all those toys in the month or so before Christmas.

For many years, Hills was the discount department store in the Valley. The first store, founded by Herbert H. Goldberger in 1957, was in Youngstown. By 1964, there were seven stores in the area. They focused their merchandising on clothing, footwear, bedding, furniture, jewelry, seasonal, beauty products, electronics, toys, and housewares.

In 1964, Goldberger sold the company to Shoe Company of America (SCOA) of Columbus. Goldberger stayed on as president until 1981 when his son, Stephen A. Goldberger succeeded him. When Herbert Goldberger turned the chain over to his son, it had expanded to 99 stores. It would grow to 125 stores by the mid-1980’s. A series of business decisions from this time onward led to the eventual demise of the Hills name, and its successor in turn.

In 1985, Stephen Goldberger led management in a leveraged buyout of SCOA, subsequently selling off everything but the Hills stores. This left the company with $642 million in debt to which it added when it acquired 33 Gold Circle Stores and opened 8 more in 1989. This came right at the time of an economic downturn and led to Stephen Goldberger’s departure in 1990 and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 1991.

Thomas Lee, who helped engineer the buyout of SCOA remained as board chair of Hills and brought in Michael Bozic in 1991. Bozic was a Sears veteran and led a turnaround that focused on remodeling stores, focusing and enhancing key merchandise lines, including its own American Spirit clothing line as well as its toy sales which accounted for 10 percent of sales, while leaving other merchandise departments like sporting goods, appliances, automotive products, and lawn and garden supplies to competitors. They also closed unprofitable stores, focusing on the places they were strongest: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Ohio towns like Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown.

They emerged from bankruptcy in 1993 to a banner year with $1.76 billion of sales. In 1994 they actually returned to opening new stores. Almost immediately, they became embroiled in a stockholder dispute, and in 1995, Bozic and most of the senior executive team resigned, leaving the company in turmoil as they tried to change numerous systems. In 1998, Ames Department Stores acquired Hills, with nearly all of the stores renamed as Ames stores by 1999. This created the fourth largest discount chain after Walmart, K-Mart, and Target. By 2002, however, Ames was out of business, leaving a number of empty stores that were once thriving Hills operations.

Hills hosted special sales and events throughout the year. It was a great place to buy those Easter Lilies for mom. But many remember two other events. One was the fireworks displays on the fourth of July in their parking lot and the arrival of Santa on Thanksgiving Day. Of course, it was also a good place to find reasonably priced school clothes, fashionable but inexpensive adult clothing, and household goods. As teens, Hills had some of the best prices on music and electronics. And of course there was that toy department. But what many of us remember the most was the popcorn!

Born in Youngstown, Hills just seemed to fit with its original market. Sadly the combination of bigger competitors like Walmart and Target, and some questionable business decisions spelled the end to the store whose motto was “Save every way, save every day at Hills.” But they sure gave us some great memories!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

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