Thursday, September 3, 2009


Dollar stores were once snubbed by most shoppers. The stigma of poverty made it embarrassing to be seen in one. Only those too poor to go elsewhere shopped there. With the economy tanking and no end in sight, frugality is now quite chic. Smart spenders earn serious cachet and save serious cash, but there are serious risks involved with the enterprise.
Dollar stores have helped themselves. They are cleaner and better lit. They are better organized and better able to serve their clientele, new and old. That change is paying off big time. Last year was a decidedly good year for these inexpensive stores. One of the biggest, Family Dollar, saw its stock value increase by 42%, while Wall Street darlings like Apple, Fedex and JPMorgan Chase saw their values plummet by double digits. Family Dollar was Standard & Poor’s highest performing stock. As the economy sours, dollar stores get sweeter and sweeter.
Dollar stores have filled a niche for years for inexpensive, off-market goods. The goods will not have a designer (or even familiar) names, but for the most part, they are practical. However, you still need some smarts to navigate the aisles.
There are deals, but be wary. Some dollar store products are not money savers and can even be dangerous. As always, every shopper needs to have the right information to make an intelligent decision. And as always, we're here to help.
TEAM CHEAPIOSITY recommends you stay away from the following dollar store products:

BATTERIES: Look closely at the package. Many dollar store batteries are knock-offs made in the Far East with inferior materials. They leak acid and don’t last as long as other, well-known brands. You may save on the up-front cost, but replacements or damage will cost more.

CHILDREN’S TOYS & JEWELRY: Consumer Reports has found many of these items to have high concentrations of lead. The countries of origin lack government oversight or have lax regulations. If you do want to buy, look at the label closely. Where was it made? Is it a brand name? Again, TEAM CHEAPIOSITY suggests staying away from these, **especially for babies and toddlers who put everything in their mouth.

PAPER GOODS: Again, these are typically an inferior product. Foam cups and paper plates are the most frequently cited example of bad dollar store products. You can find better deals and better products at a good warehouse store. (**Exception: party goods for little kids. If you find the princess or monster truck theme that your child wants, go ahead. You'll use them for about 10 minutes and the quality isn't much of an issue.)

VITAMINS: Name brand purchased by dollar stores may be a deal, but look closely at the expiration dates. Buying expired vitamins is no bargain at all.

FOOD: Tread carefully here. There can be some bargains, but read the entire label carefully, especially if you don't recognize the brand. Check not only the expiration date, but also the ingredients and where it was made. Then make an informed decision.
ELECTRICAL PRODUCTS: Knock-offs from other countries should be avoided. They are simply not up to the standards we are accustomed to. Look at the cords and the construction. If anything looks ‘off,’ avoid it. Check to find a UL label. That is usually a sign of minimum quality standards.
TOOTHPASTE: By now most of us have heard in 2007 how certain toothpaste from China had nasty chemicals in those seemingly innocuous looking tubes. Why take a risk, especially since prices at pharmacies and supermarkets are usually competitive?

PEANUTS: The recent salmonella scandal with peanuts and peanut butter should be a wake up call for everyone. But did you know that the first recall did NOT include dollar stores even though they had a bunch on the shelves? Our advice? Stay away from peanuts and peanut butter in dollar stores for some time.

Looking at the above list carefully; there are a few constants. These constants are good advice for any shopper, any place, any time. Read labels carefully. Check the expiration date. What is the country of origin? What are the ingredients? Does the package looked damaged?
Answering these questions makes your purchased smarter and safer.
Ask one more question. Can I buy this item someplace else for a better price and/or higher quality? Often, warehouse stores offer better prices for bulk purchases. You can stock up at sales in supermarkets, and drugstore chains.

So...what are the good deals in dollar stores?

GIFT WRAP: This is especially true right after a holiday. Prices for gift wrap, gift bags, ribbons, and greeting cards are remarkably low.

CLEANING SUPPLIES: Like many products, cleaning supplies go through fads or seasons. What may be the hot product one year quickly becomes dollar store shelf filler the next perhaps because the manufacturer has introduced a new scent. There is no reason to avoid these products just because they are no longer hot. They still will clean, as long as the expiration date hasn’t been reached.

KITCHEN ACCESSORIES: A sharp shopper can really score with kitchen accessories. Sometimes these items are simply out of fashion, sometimes they are imported and sometimes the dollar store scored on a close-out. Just be careful about where it is made and what you are using it for.
After a short brief period of use, kitchen towels or potholders will get stained and worn. No amount of laundering helps. Recycle them or toss them. Expensive or inexpensive, the same fate awaits. Dollar stores is the perfect place to pick up the fresh ones.

FOOD: Yeah, we know food’s in the be-very-careful category also, but you'll be fine if you read the labels. Good products at good prices can be found. Team CHEAPIOSITY found some very good coffee for $3.50 a pound that normally would sell for about $9.00 a pound. Be sharp, be savvy and scores can be found. If it is a huge score, why not stock up?

OFFICE/SCHOOL SUPPLIES: There is no expiration date. There is little chance for contamination from lead or other chemicals. So paper, erasers and many school/office supplies are decent deals. Again, compare prices at a discount office store before committing.
PLASTICS: Buckets, bins, organizers, clothes hangers, and the like can be good deals. If you expect heavy use though, spring for a national brand. If you just want to organize some things on a shelf, these will be fine.

One more caution: it's easy to toss a lot of little things into the shopping cart when prices are low. Dollar stores count on that impulse. Don’t clutter your life with useless deals. Resist the cute little vase, a spoon rest, or an auto deodorizer.

The most important thing to remember about dollar stores is simply this: These stores make a profit finding low priced goods and then selling them. The stores do not necessarily closely inspect the goods; they are not about quality assurance. It is your responsibility to determine where the goods come from, how long they have been around, and what’s in them. You're not shopping at Nordstroms. Caveat emptor. When shopping dollar stores, do so knowing you have to be the one making the smart decisions. You are not paying someone to do that for you.

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