Or, Hills is where the toys were.
Recently on the Retro Network podcast, Jason and Mickey talked about stores from their childhoods. Take a listen to Episode 10 if you haven’t already.
I was listening and yelling to the hosts, Jason and Mickey, hoping through time and space they could hear my cries. The discussion about the late Hills Department Store brought up so many thoughts and feelings. I had to add my experience and knowledge to the memories.
When I was a young child of the ’80s the closest mall was an hour away in Syracuse, NY. There were stores downtown like JC Penny’s and Sears. The outer road of town held Nichols, Ames, and Zeyhr’s. Suddenly the news broke. The far upstate town of Watertown was getting its own mall. The rest of the mall would not be ready yet, but the first anchor store announced opening day. The commercials started. Sugar Ray Leonard would be signing autographs. Hills had arrived.
Hills quickly became THE store for any kid. The star was the toys, of course. I can remember multiple GI Joe toys all the way up to Image Comics’ Cyberforce for sale on the shelves. Shelves which hid many many toys. Hidden because mom told me and my brother that if that toy was still here next time she would buy it. So we hid that toy behind a bigger toy on a high shelf. I can still remember how that store was set up. All of the twists and turns to get to the toy department. Or the boys’ clothes. Video games and movies. School supplies. I’m sure there were other things like housewares, women’s clothing, linens. Not a bit of that in my memories. But I remember the order of bikes, girls toys, boy toys, clearance.
Years later I was hired to work at that same store. My second job ever. Twice. At first, I was hired to be a night crew grunt for a remodel. Move shelves, clean this, carry items over to the new area. Two weeks later I was out a job for a few days until Hills brought me on to the daylight hours. I jumped quickly from regular cashier to the layaway section.
In the 1990s during the height of comic book and toy speculation I was on the front lines. Not only a fan and collector but also because Hills would bring all new cases to the layaway department. I had to open up fresh boxes of Star Wars, Marvel, whatever and hold up the figures lottery style. Here are case fresh rare toys in my hands. That’s when I discovered the hoarding of that community. I hold up a Slave Girl Princess Leia. The hottest toy in the land, according to Toyfare magazine. The next man in the lottery passes on it. “I already have ten.” Ah. That explains why I can’t find one. Mine now but your accumulation kind of puts a damper on my enjoyment.
While this access to toys should have been enough to keep me working at the store, I was soon for the exit. As was the company. This is where I began to study the ins and outs of retail. To see the signs of failure before that news goes public. Here is what I discovered while working at Hills during their failure.
There are two things that stores immediately get rid of in order to save costs. Bags and magazines. Think of any store you have shopped at that is now gone. Months before other signs surface the employees will be instructed to ask shoppers if they actually need a bag. I saw it at Borders, I’ve seen it at local grocery stores. And Hills ran out of bags except for giant ones for pillows. One week before Thanksgiving. At a time before everyone had reusable bags in their trunks.
The other dump is magazines. Magazines don’t have as high a profit as other products, plus necessitate a fast turn over and a person to stock them. Eliminating the product also saves this payroll. If you ever see magazines disappear from the cash register lines at your local deli, the store is in trouble.
Later, Hills chose to rearrange the stores. Give a fresh coat of paint. Look like this new up and comer department store called WalMart. Instead of emphasizing what Hills had that was special, they instead chose to copy Sam Walton’s vision. Gone was the popcorn snack bar. Worse, the toy section was greatly de-emphasized. Hills is where the toys are. This was the mantra for a generation. Now Hills became, where are the toys? The entire section that was a calling card now appeared on a milk carton.
When none of these desperate attempts worked, Hills was bought out by one of their competitors. Ames.
I have a trick for any of you who grew up with an Ames nearby. I can describe your store. Leaky ceiling. Warped floors. What magazines and books that were left were not upfront as they are in most stores, but tucked in the back of a forgotten aisle. Some teenager or early 20’s boy was looking all surly at the electronics cash register. Quietly judging you. It’s not worth it to find an employee to help because you’re both aware they don’t care. Chances are I have never set foot into the Ames you remember, and yet I described it to a tee.
When a store with this glowing image is in better financial shape than it’s competitor, there is no coming back. In the modern-day it would be akin to K-Mart buying JC Penny’s. A retail version of dividing by zero.
For those glorious perfect years though, Hills was the greatest store for a child. It felt like everything promised in Miracle on 34th Street. One of the greatest losses to our kids today is they will never have a store that is “theirs”. Not one of our sons and daughters will be writing a blog in 2039 about their Amazon memories.