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Looking for bargains? What to buy and not buy at dollar stores

By Rita R. Robison

Consumers can find many brand name products, especially grocery items, at big bargains in dollar stores.

Dollar Store SacramentoThe September 2012 issue of ShopSmart magazine, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, shows how much shoppers can save on name brand and private-label items at dollar stores, plus which products actually cost more.

“Dollar stores are no longer the junky outlets they used to be, and there are big savings to be had, even on brand name products,” Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart, said in a statement.

In a ShopSmart poll, 76 percent of women said they shopped at a dollar store in the past year, and three out of four of them said they were going to these retailers more often than they used to. One reason is dollar stores have gone mainstream and offer a wide selection of national brands.

At Dollar General, the largest of the big three chains, the brands carried include Crayola, Folgers, Hanes, Huggies, and Tide. At Family Dollar, consumers can find L’Oreal, Maybelline, Nabisco, and Pepsi. And at Dollar Tree you can buy Ajax, Dial Soap, Reynolds Wrap, Scope, and Softsoap, among other brands.

ShopSmart sent secret shoppers and shopping experts out across the country on dozens of shopping trips to mostly big-chain dollar stores such as Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree. Here’s what they found:

  • Not every product costs a dollar. Most dollar stores sell merchandise at various prices. At Dollar General, about 25 percent of the items are $1 or less. Most items cost less than $10. But you’ll find exceptions, often on specialty or seasonal goods, such as an $85 inflatable swimming pool or $35 fan.
  • They’ll save you money. ShopSmart compared prices on 38 items including food, cleaning supplies, paper products, drinks, and other everyday staples and found that Dollar General had the lowest prices on many items.
  • You can shop online. All of the big dollar-store chains have a retail website, but many products are only sold by the case. Ordering large quantities of products you use regularly, such as toilet paper, can be an economical way to shop.

What to buy and what to avoid at dollar stores

  • Consider private-label or store brands. Store brands are great bargains, but no retailers beat dollar stores when it comes to these low-budget alternatives, according to ShopSmart’s price scan. Buying a dollar store’s private-label brand can save shoppers 29 percent on average over national store brands; a better deal than the 25 you can save from Walmart and the 15 percent from Target.
  • Avoid off-brand vitamins and electrical products. In 2009, ShopSmart found lots of worrisome products on dollar store shelves including expired infant gas-relief drops, lighters that looked like toys, and tiki torches that caught fire. Today, all four dollar store chains have safety information and recalls on their websites. And even though some stores sell closeouts, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are of inferior quality. Dollar General and Family Dollar sell only first-run products, most purchased directly from the manufacturers. However, ShopSmart doesn’t recommend buying off-brand vitamins from dollar stores. Also, watch out for electrical products without UL labels, or with fake ones.
  • Check expiration dates on food and medication. Be sure to check the date when buying food or medication in a dollar store to make sure the product hasn’t expired. Items with expiration dates, such as perishable and frozen foods, topped ShopSmart’s poll respondents’ list of things that they never buy at a dollar store.
Copyright 2012, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist


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Nancy Mehegan

I naively bought some chocolates and other food items at Dollar Stores. The chocolate had obviously been in sunlight and had white blotches. The crackers and noodles were STALE. So I avoid food now at Dollar Stores. BUT they have a lot of other bargains.


Hi Nancy,

Thank you for your comment on your experience shopping at Dollar Stores.

When I was on vacation with my daughters in Sacramento, we bought July Fourth balloons for a dollar each. They were great and still looked good two weeks later.

However, we also bought two kites. Not so good. They fell apart right away, one before my grandchildren tried to get it up in the air.

Yes, I agree. You do need pick and choose among the bargains at a dollar store.


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