Sunday, January 15, 2012

Price Check: The siren song of the dollar store

An amusing article in last Wednesday's New York Times tells reporter Jesse McKinley's story of his growing addiction to shopping at dollar stores. McKinley says that far from being solely purveyors of useless plastic junk, dollar stores now offer a wide assortment of useful and attractive objects, such as spices and herbs, canned goods, cleaning supplies, dishes and glassware and various kitchen gadgets. However, he also mentions the chief peril of dollar store shopping: it's easy to find yourself throwing everything into your cart willy-nilly, buying things you don't actually need and will never use, because what the heck, it's only a dollar. However, he doesn't mention another, less obvious hazard: the fact that for some items, at a dollar a pop, you may actually be paying too much.

The thing about a dollar store—a traditional dollar store, that is, as opposed to the "$1 and up" stores starting to pop up in various areas (what kind of selling point is that, anyway? Everything in the store costs at least a dollar? How is that a bargain?)—at a traditional dollar store, everything costs a dollar, regardless of what it would cost elsewhere. A dollar is such a small amount these days that it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that this is the best deal you can expect to find on anything, but in many cases, it just isn't so. Consider:
  • At the dollar store, a one pound-box of baking soda costs a dollar. At Aldi, a discount grocery chain, it costs 50 cents.
  • At the dollar store, canned goods of all kinds cost a dollar apiece. At the supermarket, some of those items might cost more than a dollar, but others might cost as little as 75 cents. (Not to mention that supermarkets have sales and dollar stores don't—so if you bought a dozen cans of veggies at your local dollar store this week, you'd pay twice as much for them as you would at the Shop Rite, currently in the middle of its annual "Can-Can Sale" on all types of canned goods.)
  • At the dollar store, a bottle of aspirin costs a dollar—but it may contain as little as 20 tablets, for a per-pill cost of 5 cents. At your local chain drugstore, you could pay as little as $4 for a bottle of 500 tablets, which works out to less than a penny a pill.
Then there's cleaning supplies, which one dollar store owner describes as the "gateway product" that gets many of their customers in the door. Surely you can't expect to do better than a dollar for a bottle of knock-off Windex, right? Well, not at your local grocery store—but if you just save the empty bottle you've just used up and fill it with a 50-50 mixture of vinegar and tap water, it'll do the same job for significantly less. (In fact, as my latest Tip Hero newsletter notes, there's a homemade version of just about every cleaning product imaginable, most of them mixed up from common—and cheap—household ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide.)

None of this is meant to knock dollar stores. Dollar Tree is one of my favorite chains, and I'll frequently poke my head in there when I'm just passing by, even if I'm not looking for anything, just to enjoy scavenging through the shelves for unexpected bargains. But while I think dollar stores are great for treasure hunting, I wouldn't treat them as a one-stop shop for all my needs. I'd still expect to find better prices and selection for groceries at the grocery store, drugs at the drugstore, and hardware at the hardware store. I'd only make the dollar store my first stop for household doodads—picture frames, coffee mugs, shower curtain liners—that don't need to be of particularly high quality. Because let's face it, while it may be possible nowadays to find some decent-quality merchandise at dollar stores, it's still a lot easier, even now, to find useless plastic junk.
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