“What to buy (and not to buy) at the dollar store,” blared the headline for a Washington Post analysis of retail chains such as Dollar Tree and 99 Cents Only.
Although my own experiences have been mostly positive (clean, well-stocked, easily navigated stores with friendly employees), I can understand the need for the Post, Consumer Reports and other periodicals to offer pointers for maximizing the shopping experience.
First, the good news. Dollar stores have been a reliable source of snacks, party supplies, gift bags and toothpaste for my family. I was tickled to find perfectly serviceable reading glasses for my mother at one-fifth the price I had encountered at other “everyday low prices” stores. I am especially grateful for the name-brand “two for a dollar” greeting cards offered at dollar stores. I had always felt stupid emptying my wallet for “one and done” cards that should really say, “I can’t believe you’re 6 years old — and that this bleepin’ card cost more than the obstetrician who delivered you.”
On the other hand, consumer advocates advise checking the package weight, ingredients and expiration dates on “too good to be true” bargains. The date on processed meat should contain a month and year, not a reference to Carbon-14! And, regardless of the advertised SPF level, you probably won’t get much protection from sunscreen with a dusty label proclaiming, “When you run out of children to sacrifice, this offers last-ditch protection against that giant ball of fire in the sky.”
Critics warn that “you get what you pay for” and should be willing to shop for high-quality versions of certain items at actual hardware stores. You know the old saying: “When the only tool you have is a dollar hammer, every problem starts to look like the head flying off and coldcocking your spouse.”
Cosmetic products may be watered down or contain harsher ingredients than other brands. But in case you’re putting on a community theater production of “The Wizard of Oz,” can you really pass up spending a buck to have a realistic portrayal of someone with green skin moaning, “I’m melting, I’m melting”?
Toys can be particularly lacking in sturdiness. (“Stop crying over that busted paddle ball or I’ll give you something to cry about — a sack of dollar yo-yos!”)
Skeptics say some fly-by-night suppliers are lacking in transparency, track record and accountability. On the other hand, the vaunted name-brand manufacturers can afford the best lobbyists and lawyers. (“Battery spewed acid down your esophagus? We have this bunny that just keeps going and going and going ... back to court. Don’t spend your settlement in one place. Aw, you splurged on gum.”)
Dollar stores have been controversial in some communities. They are accused of driving grocery stores out of business and reducing access to fresh food. Tulsa, Oklahoma, and other cities have imposed restrictions on the establishments. Because, you know, consumers who would invest a dollar in an extension cord are going to live long enough to reap the health benefits of kale and mangoes.
Finally, no kidding, home pregnancy tests are among the top selling items at dollar stores. Sales really spike after some Lothario stocks up on dollar bottles of wine. Perhaps those Lotharios should toss in an appropriate greeting card. (“I can’t believe this wine is 6 days old — and cost more than my vasectomy.”)