Illustration by Eda Akaltun
Food, housewares, beauty products, gift wrap, clothes and more line the shelves of dollar stores across the country. But are they really worth the discounted price? One writer decided to find out.
Let's start off by saying that I am not what you would call a low-maintenance girl. I wear makeup and heels to run errands. My thread counts are in the four figures. And, yes, I’ll admit it: There is a jar of Grey Poupon in my fridge.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not living in the lap of luxury. My ratio of Jimmy Choos to Aerosoles is approximately 1 to 46. The fact is, with newborn twins, my husband and I have to stay on budget. This means we occasionally hit up the dollar store to save some moola.
And why not — especially for the occasional roll of tin foil or some dishwashing soap? Who wouldn’t rather pay a buck for a box of granola bars that costs nearly five times as much in the local supermarket?
It’s true that my other half, Luke, has been more liberal with his 99-cent-store purchases than I. His favorite body soap is an off-brand bar that features a nice-looking brunette lady on the box and smells like Irish Spring. I, on the other hand, have steered clear of any items that go on or in your body. That is, until now.
It was a cold, gray afternoon in Brooklyn, N.Y., when the shining lights of my local dollar store lured me in. While searching the aisles for a laundry basket to hold my babies’ growing collection of toys, I stopped to marvel at the sheer variety of products under one roof. I bet a person could live off of this store if they had to, I thought. And so for one week, that is exactly what I did.
The 99-cent stores that are now ubiquitous across America have their roots in the five-and-dimes of yesteryear. In 1879, the Woolworth Brothers opened their first five-cent store in Lancaster, Pa. Back then, the idea of a single price point was new and alluring. These days, most dollar stores actually sell products at a buck or more. Still, dollar stores are big business, especially in this economy. They have spawned a $56 billion industry that’s seen a 43 percent increase since 1998, according to research firm IBISWorld. And there’s no stigma attached to shopping at one — stores exist in both low-income and well-to-do neighborhoods. These days, everybody wants a bargain.
With this in mind, I head over to 99 Cent Rush, my local store with a patriotic red-white-and-blue marquee. Grabbing a shopping cart, I weave up and down the aisles, loading up on all the staples I’ll need to get through a week (and chucking in a few “fun purchases” while I’m at it). I don’t really tally up my items as I go, so when I mosey up to the cash register, I silently pray that I won’t go over the $100 in expenses my editor allowed me after I pitched her this idea for a story/experiment.
“It happens to me every time,” says a woman? in line behind me, eyeing my overflowing shopping cart. “You come in for one thing and end up buying out the whole store!”