Leon Levine, who built Family Dollar into a discount retail giant catering to America’s lower-income and middle-class shoppers, has died at 85.
The Leon Levine Foundation, the philanthropic organization Levine later founded, confirmed in an online statement he died on April 5. No cause was listed.
Levine, a college dropout, was one of several retail founders who ushered in a boom of stores selling low-cost goods. Discount stores have thrived in recent decades as the income gap in the United States has widened. Three dollar store chains — Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar — are now the fastest-growing US retailers.
Levine opened the first Family Dollar store in 1959 at age 22 in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his cousin. The store sold clothing, cleaning supplies and essentials for under $2.
Family Dollar grew around the rural South and by 1969 had 50 stores. The company went public in 1970, the same year as Walmart.
Levine found a niche appealing to lower-income customers in mostly rural areas.
He would look for new store locations by driving around and checking supermarket parking lots. Fresh oil spots on the pavement meant the locals drove older cars and didn’t have much money for repairs, the Charlotte Observer reported in 2004.
Levine’s Family Dollar bucked a trend in retail at the time toward building large stores in the fast-growing suburbs. Instead, the company opted for locations the size of convenience stores close to shoppers’ homes.
During the 1970s and 1980s, as department stores like Sears opened in malls and Walmart was beginning to build large superstores, Family Dollar built small stores in neighborhood strip malls.
Stores were typically 6,000 to 8,000 square feet and were easy for quick visits.
“We’re just the opposite of a Wal-Mart,” Family Dollar president George Mahoney told the Associated Press in 1993. “Our customers don’t want the hassle of shopping in a huge store, or they lack the funds to shop there.”
By 1993, Family Dollar had 2,000 stores. A decade later, when Levine retired from Family Dollar, the company had around 4,500 stores. (Today, there are more than 8,000 Family Dollar stores. Dollar Tree bought the chain in 2015 for nearly $9 billion.)
After he retired from Family Dollar, Levine became one the largest philanthropists in the South, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to universities, hospitals and Jewish organizations.