What things can you safely buy in dollar stores?

Adventures on Down Marketing: Dollar Stores

by Garen Daly

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Down marketing is not the niche business of taking feathers from geese and selling them to pillow makers. No, down marketing is the new catch phrase that describes a shift in our spending. It is shopping in discount stores and finding deals. The Frugal Yankee has always been down market, so we know it can have its pitfalls. The Frugal Yankee has been looking at dollar stores, a place where the prices are easy on the wallet. Are these real deals or are they bad news? The answer is they are both.

Most shoppers once snubbed dollar stores. It was an embarrassment to be seen coming out of one. There was a stigma of poverty. Only those too poor to go elsewhere shopped there. With the economy tanking and no end in sight, frugality is now "in." It is chic to be a smart spender. The one time shopping pariah now has a money saving cachet.

The 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. Family Dollar was Standard & Poor's highest performing stock in 2008. As the economy soured, dollar stores got sweeter and sweeter.

Dollar stores have filled a niche for years for inexpensive, off market goods. The goods will not have designer names, but for the most part, they are practical. You need some smarts to navigate the aisles. There are deals, but be wary. Some of the products are not money savers and can even be dangerous. As always, the shopper needs to have the right information to make an intelligent decision.

The Frugal Yankee recommends you stay away from the following dollar store products:

Batteries - Look closely at the package. Many of them 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 and Jewelry - Consumer Reports has found many of these items to have high concentrations of lead. The countries of origin lack the 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 the Frugal Yankee suggests staying away from these, especially for babies and toddlers who put everything in their mouth.

Paper Goods - Again this is usually an inferior product. Foam cups and paper plates are the most frequently cited example of bad products. You can find better deals and better products at a good warehouse store. (The exception is 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 date. Expired vitamins defeat the purpose.

Food - Tread carefully here. There can be some bargains, but read the entire label carefully, especially if you don't recognize the brand. Look not only at the expiration date but also at 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 standard we are accustomed to. Look at the cords and the construction. If anything looks "off," avoid it. See if it has a UL label on it. That is usually a sign of minimum quality standards.

Toothpaste - Most of us heard how certain toothpaste from China had nasty chemicals in those seemingly innocuous looking tubes. Even if you were to buy it from a dollar store, prices at pharmacies and supermarkets are usually competitive, so why bother?

Peanuts - The 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?

Looking at the above list carefully, there are a few constants. These constants are good advice for any shopper, any place and any time. Read the label carefully. Check the expiration date. Know the country of origin. Know the ingredients. Does the package looked damaged? Make your purchases 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. Consider both when shopping.

OK, with all that, what are the good deals in dollar stores?

Gift-Wrap - This is especially true right after a holiday. Prices for gift-wrap, 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 this is 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 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 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 are the place to pick up the fresh ones.

Food - Yeah, I know that's in the "be very careful" category, but read the labels. Good products at good prices can be found. The Frugal Yankee found some very good coffee for $3.50 a pound that normally would sell for about $9 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, hold out for a national brand. If you just want to organize some things on a shelf, these will be fine.

I have 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.

There are more products, but the most important thing to remember about dollar stores is simply this. These stores make a living on finding low priced goods and then selling them. Where the goods come from, how long they have been around or what's in them is not necessarily closely inspected by the store. 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.

You'll find Garen Daly at The Frugal Yankee, where you'll find more on frugal living, New England style and downloads of the Frugal Yankee radio broadcasts (look for "latest audio" on the left menubar).
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