If images of dusty mazes of shelves packed with shoddy and weird off-brand products come to mind when you think of dollar stores, maybe it’s time for a shopping trip, as a lot has changed at these discount emporiums.
Here’s what our secret shoppers and shopping experts across the country found during their dozens of trips to mostly big-chain dollar stores like Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar:
Dollar stores are convenient and fun. Shopping in these stores is a bit like being on a treasure hunt—they carry a wide and ever-changing stock of goodies. Many of today’s dollar stores are well organized and designed to get you in and out fast. And many carry grocery staples like bread, eggs, and toilet paper.
They’ll save you a bundle. We compared prices on 38 everyday products and found that Dollar General had the lowest prices on many items. It beat or came close to Walmart in many cases, which typically does best in our price scans. Dollar General also accepts coupons and returns; not all do.
You’ll really save if you buy dollar-store brands. Store brands always save you big, but no retailers beat dollar stores when it comes to these low-budget brands, according to our latest price scan.
America is going dollar-store crazy. We surveyed 1,500 women to see what they think of dollar stores, and 76 percent said they’d checked out a dollar store in the past year.
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5 surprising things about dollar stores
Dollar stores are working hard to get your business. In the past five years, they have been rolling out new and improved stores across the country and are now among the few retailers that are actually growing these days.
When we did a price scan of dollar stores four years ago, we found that they were a great place to pick up paper goods and other nonperishables at bargain prices. (We didn’t even bother to check prices on food because it wasn’t as widely available, especially fresh and frozen products.) But we also found lots of no-name brands and even potentially dangerous products.
That might still be the case at some stores, so you’ll always want to be on the lookout for potentially shoddy or unsafe products. But the biggest chains—Dollar General, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, and 99¢ Only—are focusing more on better-known brands and private-label products at bargain prices. They’re also paying closer attention to safety and quality, according to the company reps we interviewed.
So if you haven’t been to a dollar store lately, prepare to be surprised.
Surprise #1: Not every product costs just a dollar. While Dollar Tree sells stuff for a buck (sometimes even less), and 99¢ Only has its own unique price, selling everything for 99.99 cents, most dollar stores sell stuff at a variety of prices. At Dollar General, for example, about 25 percent of the store’s goods are $1 or less, according to company spokeswoman Mary Winn Gordon. Most items (a typical store stocks about 12,000) cost less than $10. But you’ll find exceptions, often on specialty or seasonal goods, like the $85 inflatable swimming pool or the $35 fan we saw earlier this summer. Family Dollar’s prices are all over the map as well.
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Surprise #2: Dollar stores sell lots of brand-name products. One of the biggest reasons shopping at dollar stores has gone mainstream is the wide selection of national brands. In the past, says Michael Bloom, president and CEO of Family Dollar, “our customer could not complete her shop when she was in our stores. So we were not relevant.”
So the chains started stocking up on brand-name items, especially in the grocery area, to compete with supermarkets and mass retailers like Target and Walmart.
Here is a sampling of the national brands you’ll find at the dollar-store chains:
- At Dollar General, the largest of the big chains, aisles are stocked with such brands as Crayola, Folgers, Hanes, Hefty, Huggies, and Tide.
- At Family Dollar look for L’Oréal, Maybelline, Nabisco, and Pepsi.
- At Dollar Tree you can buy Ajax, Dial Soap, Reynolds Wrap, Scope, and Softsoap, among other big brands.
- And 99¢ Only has gourmet and organic-food sections, as well as personal-care, pet, and household products from Ajax, Alpo, Colgate, Irish Spring, Whiskas, and other brands.
Surprise #3: Dollar stores are attracting upscale shoppers. Dollar General says its biggest growing group of customers are people who earn $70,000 or more a year. “Everyone wants to save money, no matter how much they make,” Gordon says. Our own survey revealed that dollar stores are attracting shoppers of all economic levels: We found that 82 percent of people who make less than $40,000 a year had shopped at a dollar store, and so had 75 percent of those making between $40,000 and $74,900, and almost as many—68 percent—of those making $75,000 or more.
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“The economy has forced people into our store,” says Bloom, who came to Family Dollar from drugstore giant CVS. “Now we have to keep them.” One way dollar stores have done that, in addition to beefing up their inventory of national brands, is by developing their own private-label product lines. Buying store brands is a money-saving tactic many shoppers have embraced. And in our product tests, we often find that store brands do as well as—and sometimes even better than—big national brands. Plus, store brands can save you a lot of money.
To compete with store brands such as Kirkland at Costco, Equate at Walmart, and Market Pantry at Target, as well as individual supermarket lines, the two biggest dollar-store chains have launched their own labels. Dollar General offers Clover Valley packaged foods and a new line of DG products with more than 1,500 items in all, including DG Baby diapers and wipes, DG Body personal-care items, DG Home housewares, DG Office school and home-office supplies, and Everpet pet food and other goodies. Family Dollar sells a Family Gourmet store-brand line of prepackaged meals and other food.
Surprise #4: Safety should be less of an issue than in the past. We took our safety expert shopping at a local dollar store in 2009 and found lots of worrisome products on the shelves: expired infant gas-relief drops, bubble liquid packaged in what looked like a soda bottle, lighters that looked like toys, tiki torches that caught fire (not just the part that’s supposed to), and a bunch of kids’ products with parts small enough to choke on. Our survey found that Americans still don’t fully trust the quality or safety of some dollar-store products. Almost 40 percent of shoppers who said they’d never purchase electronics items at a dollar store told us that it was because of safety concerns.
That image is what today’s big chains are looking to shake. All four have safety info and recalls on their websites. Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar track recalls and post notices on their sites. Go to dollargeneral.com and familydollar.com and click on “Product Recalls” at the bottom of the home page to see the latest ones. At dollartree.com, click on “Recall Information.” At 99Only.com, click on “About Us” and then “Product Safety” for recalls links and other safety info.
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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