Is there anything as thrilling as finding just the item you need and learning it only costs a dollar? This pleasure seems harder to come by now, as prices at dollar stores are usually more than a buck these days.
Still, lots of items are cheap and useful, especially if you’re willing to forego brand names and fancy packaging.
Americans are flocking to these stores as inflation ravages consumer pocketbooks. Dollar Tree and one of its rivals, Dollar General, reported increased profits in the last quarter and announced their customer base is growing to include higher-income shoppers.
Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar: What’s the difference? I visited select locations of these as well as two 99 Cents stores to see what they are selling, how much it costs, and how prices compare with those of big-box retailers. Sometimes their prices were better; often they were surprisingly more expensive. Here’s what I found.
This store had almost everything I would need for basic stocking up of my home, except for fresh vegetables. There were frozen foods, including chicken franks, veggie meatballs and my favorite, coffee ice cream (no name brand at all on the container).
Almost everything cost $1.25. I found some greeting cards and neon-colored poster boards for 50 cents each.
You could have a lot of fun here buying a big bag of cheap toys for kids, including coloring books, school supplies, toy cars, toddler bats and stickers. I even found authentic Barbie birthday cake toppers, with Barbie as a baseball player and gymnast.
I bought several cleaning products, including Comet Classic Kitchen Cleaner with Bleach, and there were lots of off-brand window and toilet bowl cleaners. I also got parchment paper for cooking and aluminum foil. And I was excited to find a semi-fashionable pair of reading glasses, since I typically pay at least $15 when I buy them at a pharmacy.
Contrary to its name, very few products were $1 here. This is an all-purpose grocery store/pharmacy/home goods store, and it even carried some fresh fruit and vegetables. A small watermelon was $3.95, and the refrigerator case also had fresh oranges, carrots and celery.
There was quite a selection of name-brand products, including an 11.5-ounce canister of Maxwell House Original Roast coffee for $5 ($6.63 at Publix). I made the mistake of buying a bag of Nestle Toll House milk chocolate chips for $3 and discovered later that Walmart sells the same bag for $2.62. I bought my dog a bag of Heartland Farms beef bully chews, three sticks for $3.95. A 12-ounce box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal was $3 (Walmart and Amazon sell it for the same price).
The store carried a whole aisle of home goods, including fabrics, pillows, bath mats and $20 area rugs. Greeting cards were $1; a little can of Contadina tomato paste went for 95 cents (Walmart sells it for 88 cents, Publix for 89 cents).
Most products here were not $1 either, though I did find tissue paper, ribbons, napkins, plastic plates and forks at that price. The store had many empty shelves; boxes that were ready to be unpacked filled the aisles on a recent Tuesday morning.
This store had a section full of clothing for kids and adults. I found a pair of chic Birkenstock-style, double-strapped, copper metallic sandals for $5 in my size, 7. There were also baby clothes, kids’ sweatpants, bras ($10), pajama bottoms ($12.50) and brightly colored adult T-shirts ($8).
There was also a substantial freezer section. You could buy a frozen fettuccine alfredo dinner for $1.50 and a frozen Fast Bites Cheeseburger for $1.25. I also found a bag of cherry-flavored Best M Menthol Cough Drops for $1 (Big Lots sells them at the same price).
How to dollar shop strategically
For those of us who take dollar store shopping seriously, there are several websites that detail weekly deals and suggested shopping strategies, such as DollarStoreShopping.com, TheKrazyCouponLady.com and AARP.com. My recommendation: Try it out. If you don’t like a purchase, you’re only out a dollar (or a couple of bucks at most).