Sure, some stores sell closeouts, which helps keep prices so low, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re of inferior quality. But Dollar General and Family Dollar sell only first-run products, most purchased directly from manufacturers. “We take our quality very seriously," Bloom says. "We’re not buying from the trunk of a car.”
That said, we still don’t recommend buying off-brand vitamins from these stores. When we tested multivitamins we found that some didn’t have the amount of nutrients listed on the label. Also watch out for electrical products without UL labels, or with fake ones, vouching for their safety. (Undersized wiring or other substandard components can overheat and cause a fire.) Always look for an expiration date on medication and food. And if you’re buying toys or party favors for small children, make sure they pass the toilet-paper-tube test: If they fit through the tube, they can get caught in a child’s throat and cause choking.
Surprise #5: You can get in and out in 10 minutes, usually. You might sometimes hit a big line or get sidetracked by cheap goodies you don’t really need, but the idea is that these “small-box retailers” can be convenient places for midweek fill-ins on your way home from work, replacing trips to the supermarket, drugstore, or convenience store.
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Dollar stores probably won’t do for your big weekly grocery shop, but if you want to pop in to pick up some soap, a highlighter for your kid’s school project, and some milk, you might just get in and out in 10 minutes. Other retailers are recognizing the appeal of a faster stop. Walmart is testing its own smaller stores, called Walmart Express, which could just be the best of both worlds, based on our price scan.
If you shop at dollar stores, store-brand products are a great way to go, saving you 29 percent on average over national brands. That’s even better than the savings for store brands we found at other retailers: 25 percent at Walmart and supermarkets, and just 15 percent at Target.
Dollar General and Family Dollar now carry lots of private-label products, and according to our price scan, they’re the biggest bargains by far. Over the years, our taste testers have rated many store-brand foods and drinks at good as or even better than name brands. So they’re worth a try. If you like them, you’ll save big.
For our scan, we sent our secret shoppers across the U.S. to price a list of 38 items, including food, cleaning supplies, paper products, drinks, and other staples at the two biggest dollar stores, supermarkets, Target, and Walmart. Supermarkets were by far the most expensive places to buy groceries (unless you shop when lots of items are on sale and hit those coupons hard). Walmart had the lowest prices overall, beating its competitors’ prices on 29 of the items on our list. Target had the lowest prices on six items, and Dollar General on five, though it came close to Walmart on many items.
We found that Dollar General had better prices overall than Family Dollar.
Dollar-store Web deals
The merchandise in dollar stores changes quickly and often comes in very limited quantities. And many of the products are impulse items and seasonal and holiday goods, which give the stores a fun treasure-hunt vibe. But all of the big dollar-store chains have a retail website, too.
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Many products are sold by the case. Ordering large quantities of products you use regularly (diapers or toilet paper, for instance) can be an economical way to stock up. DollarGeneral.com is the only big chain that also sells items individually. You can get free shipping if you spend $25 or more. DollarTree.com sells items in bulk or by the case; shipping is free if you have the order sent to a nearby store for pickup. Otherwise, you’ll pay shipping fees based on weight and size, plus a handling fee of up to $5 per order. Family Dollar doesn’t sell its in-store items online, but you can buy a prepaid cell phone with no contract, which can be a smart way to go if you don’t use a lot of talk time or data. 99¢ Only’s site has a new bulk-sales program, Club 99.
The sites are worth a visit, even if you don't shop on them. All offer sales alerts and coupons, or you can sign up for e-mail or mobile alerts. And their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds sometimes provide money-saving offers and coupons.
Dollar store FAQs
Located in only a few states, 99¢ Only is the smallest chain. The other three chains are all over the U.S. If they’re not in your area yet, just wait; they’re all in growth mode. Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree combined plan to open 2,400 new stores by 2013. The information here is current as of June 2012.
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