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Considering The Real Value of Dollar Stores

by Gip Plaster on November 1st, 2011

Can dollar stores fit into a simple, deliberate life? They can’t be very socially responsible or life-expanding, can they?

They’re frugal enough, and they’re fairly simple. But since most of the products are imported and the quality is often very low, just how deliberate are they?

This post is not about places like Dollar General and Family Dollar that sell things at a variety of prices but round them to the nearest dollar. This post is about stores where every product is one dollar — or the appropriate equivalent single-price in other countries. (What are these places called in the UK and Australia, for example? I know some of you can tell me.)

Around here, the most prolific brand name of those one-dollar stores is Dollar Tree. When I was a kid and these first started appearing, many were called Everything’s A Dollar. Dollar stores once carried overstocked merchandise and lots of ceramic figurines, but now, companies make low-quality alternatives to just about everything especially for these stores.

The Backstory

We rarely buy a new broom or mop, but it’s time for us to clean up our act a bit, and even our cleaning supplies are dirty. After seeing $4 brooms and $8 mops at Walmart, I decided that such disposable cleaning supplies shouldn’t have to cost so much. Where could I get a low-quality, barely adequate broom and mop? We have hardly any hard floor to worry about, so our requirements are, perhaps surprisingly, minimal.

Enter Dollar Tree.

I don’t like their stores because they’re filthy and usually smell like broken bottles of cleaning chemicals, but they surely have brooms and mops, don’t they?

We found a perfectly adequate broom for $1 with a metal handle and nice bristles. The rag mops we found looked okay, too, but the sponge mops had plastic handles that were already collapsing and the sponge part seemed to be made of the kind of foam rubber you stuff a couch cushion with. We didn’t buy one of those.

I’ve also been wanting something to help me wipe the inside of my car windshield. With my large hands and its steep angle, wiping it nearly impossible for me. Walmart has the perfect device for $15, but I’m no idiot. I wouldn’t buy that. When we visited Dollar Tree, they had a similar device — not exactly the same — for, as you might of guessed, $1. I willingly bought that. I even sprang for a bottle of glass cleaner there.

I bought a few sponges, too, for doing the dishes.

I wanted some low-end necessities, and for $6.50 including tax, I got what I needed.

So What’s The Real Value?

I always wonder, however, if I’m doing the right thing when I go to dollar stores. Here are some considerations that have occurred to me:

  • I saved perhaps $20 or more on just these few supplies. I work hard for my money and don’t yet have an unlimited supply, so I need to save on things that aren’t very important to me.
  • The items at Walmart are probably better quality, but how good does a broom need to be? I could have perhaps found even better items at Target or somewhere else.
  • The items from Dollar Tree are probably made in Asian sweatshops or similarly horrid places, but the ones at Walmart probably are too. Am I willing to pay a fair price for these things? And would these supposedly oppressed and perhaps fictional Asians have a job at all if they weren’t making low-quality products for Americans?
  • It isn’t very clear what the cleaning chemicals they sell at dollar stores contain. I suspect many of them are just fragrant water without the benefit of a brand-name manufacturer’s research department making sure they actually work. Or could they be more caustic or dangerous than they need to be? I can’t imagine there’s much quality control, but I suppose the government has some kind of oversight on these products, don’t they?
  • Why is food cheaper there? I don’t trust the frozen products and jars of processed foods. And what about the canned goods? Are there really beans in there? Aldi seems like a better, more trustworthy place to buy food.
  • Like shopping at other places that are packed with junk and overflowing with uselessness, you can’t exactly feel good about yourself in a dollar store. But then where can you spend your money for cleaning supplies and feel good?

You can use the comments section to sound off about my observations and add your own.

What do you think about dollar stores and similar places?

I’m never sure what to think, but I like their prices on some of the simple things in life that don’t really have to be very good.

Sometimes, I think, quality isn’t a selling point. Isn’t it foolish to pay more than necessary when you aren’t sure you’re being any more responsible or any more sensible when you pay the bigger price?

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18 Comments
  1. Megyn @Minimalist Mommi permalink

    Thank you for this as I have the same dilemma. We have quite a few Dollar Trees here along with 99 Cent Stores. Quite a few of the Dollar Trees are really nice, but that’s only because of the areas they are in. I used to be a HUGE fan of the Dollar Tree, but I’ve cut back a bit. I too went there for a broom, and that thing has lasted me years. It’s also the perfect place for greeting cards…2/$1. It’s much better than the $2-3 for a single one Hallmark charges. But like you, I wonder what I’m funding. All I can figure is that if I have to buy a sweatshop made item, I might as well get a bargain!
    Megyn @Minimalist Mommi recently posted The Grinch Struck Again!

    • I forgot about 99 Cents Only. That’s another popular chain here.

      You make a good point, Megyn. If you’re going to be buying from an Asian sweatshop, there’s no reason to compound the silliness by paying too much. I’m not willing to pay top dollar for a broom that will get dragged through some spilled water or mud long before it actually wears out.

      Gip

  2. simply stephen permalink

    Hey Gip…it seems everything is about DOLLAR$ and $EN$E versus convenience now days. True dollar stores, the five and dimes of today offer the best price on everything, not the best mark up.

    The green in me avoids the dollar stores because of packaging, waste and distribution impact on the environment. The frugal in me finds the best ones when I do go on rare occasions…local and with good prices, not corporate.

    There are alternatives – buying quality goods that last for a long time. This saves in the long run and there is a simple trick to finding them…look for the places that sell vintage and used goods, both on line and in real life.

    A recent example. I wanted to avoid cheap, disposable razors. I went to an antique store and for $12 bought a barber’s straight razor. No more waste. No more money spent.
    simply stephen recently posted spotlight: interview with john macKenzie at ethical host

    • I don’t know of any locally owned dollar stores here anymore, although there were once several.

      Some things like cleaning supplies are meant to be disposable. I don’t want to use the same mop for a decade; I want to throw away all the bacteria and gunk and start fresh now and then. I think there are times to buy quality and times to buy cheap stuff. I’m a big fan of thrift stores, too. I love used clothes, but I want a new scrub brush, broom or sponge!

      Thanks for commenting, Stephen. It’s good to hear from you.
      Gip

  3. Interesting thoughts on the real value, Gip. I also have mixed feelings about dollar stores. I echo Megyn on them being a great place to get greeting cards at an appropriate price and find they also often have a nice selection of coloring and activity books for kids.

    I only actually go to a dollar store a couple of times each year and the main reason is to take the little grandkids to do their Christmas shopping. I help them each make a list of recipients, allocate each a roll of quarters and then help them select gifts. I’m always impressed with how well even the youngest one (last year only 2.5 yo) does in picking out appropriate stuff for each individual – like a kitchen towel that matches the kitchen decor. Anyway, it’s fun for me and allows them to participate in holiday giving. Then we go home and wrap everything, usually in gift bags from the dollar store so even the youngest can do that part, too.
    Crystal recently posted DIY Hair Donation Update

    • My last trip to a dollar store prior to this one was a couple of months ago for packing tape. It was also cheaper than Walmart and adequate for my purposes.

      I used to enjoy holiday decorations and things like that, but they don’t appeal to me anymore — most of the time. A lot of the things in dollar stores seem geared toward children. If you must buy something like that, it seems as good a place to do it as anywhere. I don’t buy greeting cards, but that makes sense too.

      Thanks for commenting, Crystal.

      Gip

  4. Joni Brown permalink

    I too have mixed feelings. I am super low on money this year so I admit to having used Dollar Tree more than ever before. The ones we have here in GA are franchises. I talked at length with a manager one day as I was actually thinking of applying for a part time job I was so desperate at the time. I bought toilet bowl cleaner last with a name brand on it and it was so watery I used almost half the container. The ones I previously bought from Wal-Mart were thick. Therefore, I did not get a bargain.
    I don’t mind buying toys because my great nephews would rather have video games that I can no way afford so if I don’t pay much I don’t mind that my gifts are ignored…LOL. Now, the younger they are (2 or 3) they love anything they get. I am one of those that hates going to the store, the bigger the store the worse I hate it. I have agoraphobia and if every store delivered, I’d be happy. I go to the smallest and I hope least crowded store I can find. The Dollar Tree’s here are clean or dirty depending on the part of town also.
    I’ve bought some food a few times because my phobia of crowds made up for going to Dollar Tree. I bought cookies, dry cream for coffee, coffee (brand name, brand price), bread (brand name, brand price), cereal, shampoo, 2-liter ginger ale, and some paper products like notebook paper, paper towels, and a few dog treats.
    Yea, you can tell they are cheaply made. However, some items are worth it, some are not. I am still ambivalent so I suppose I have not made up my mind about them. Good subject for thought.
    Joni
    Joni Brown recently posted Coretta Scott King

    • We all seem to have mixed feelings.

      I’ve noticed many people like smaller stores as they get older. I’d never buy anything at a Walgreens or CVS, for example, but many older people I know prefer them because they’re easy to get around in. I guess Dollar Stores are great for them too. You’re not the only one with a reason to prefer these small-format stores. In general, limiting time in any kind of store is a good idea.

      Gip

  5. simply stephen permalink

    The trend in Ontario and Canada in general seems to be that many of the “true $1” stores are fading to $2 or $3 items. There are a few value chains such as Dollarama and Giant Tiger that carry “good” products” at great prices.

    @Megyn makes a great point about sweatshop items and when I’m in Toronto I always visit China Town…that is where the best deals can be made.

    I certainly agree about packing tape being a “non-quality” item and going to the dollar store for it or “hygeine” items but…if I want to buy a hammer, I want one that is going to last for a long time and vintage or a specialty store would be visited.

    I have an ethos to follow since I “preach” green so hypocrisy creeps in every time I buy for price but…budget is important for most of us and there are so many useful things that are overpriced anywhere but the dollar store.
    simply stephen recently posted spotlight: interview with john macKenzie at ethical host

    • I’d probably buy a hammer new. Of course, I have a hammer, and there aren’t too many opportunities to buy a hammer in a lifetime.

      We all seem to have preferences and biases. I have no problem with used clothes, but would never buy used shoes. I’ve bought used kitchenware, but I bleach it before use. I’d never buy a used electrical appliance, though. Likewise, I don’t buy food at dollar stores or pay full price for tape.

      That fact that everyone has different points they won’t cross is an interesting sociological study, I think.

      Thanks for commenting again. I like to know people are reading my responses too!
      Gip

  6. tammy permalink

    my only experience with a dollar tree is a picture frame i bought.
    it fell apart before i could even get the photograph in it. never went back!
    i buy so little anymore, other than food and prescriptions, that i have the
    “bad?” habit of simply going to walmart and target.
    as to sweatshops… i read an interesting article on clothing a few years ago…
    it seems some of the best designer brands, sold in upscale stores, are also made in sweatshops. you are not then, paying for quality… you are paying for the well known, snobby label sewed into the same seam that others are buying at half the price?!! (i can’t remember the actual brands, so for the sake of accuracy and defamation, wouldn’t want to list any here. but i remember being rather amazed.)
    i don’t know. it’s all a quandry! i think you have the right idea, gip. buy only the non-essentials and always look for the best quality you can for the money.
    in other things, where quality is a must… be prepared to pay more.
    good thought provoking post. as usual!
    tammy j

    • Thanks, Tammy. We don’t buy much anymore either. About two or three trips to Dollar Tree per year are enough for me. I get depressed in Walmart, so you can imagine how these places make me feel!
      Gip

  7. deb permalink

    In New Zealand we have “The 2 Dollar Shop” and also “The 2,3 and 4 dollar shop”, probably because our currency is worth less. These shops are great for those on really tight budgets or kids doing christmas shopping but not so great for minimalists. You can come away with a lot of junk because it’s so cheap. I have never bought anything very worthwhile from those places.

    Deb

    • You’re right about being able to afford a lot of junk. They do make it easy to clutter up your home. I think a minimalist approach to dollar stores is best: Only go a minimal number of times.
      Gip

  8. Use vinegar and baking soda for cleaning, not noxious, overpriced chemicals. Use a broom from broom straw that works better, lasts longer and is not made of plastic. Buy them from the Industries for the Blind and support Americans. Wash out your mop in a little Clorox and rinse well, Hang in the sun and there are no more germs.

    After all the recalls, how confident are you of government oversight?

    Best place for greeting cards–yard sales, thrift stores.

    If children are shown how to buy crap, what else will they know? Sure, a dishtowel is a good thing for a little kid to buy.

    A few Tonka Toys will last the lifetime of a family of children, whereas, cheap junk does not and just teaches children little about value.

    I bought a hand mirror for my bathroom from the Dollar Tree. I always buy Dawn at Dollar General. The other Dollar Store doubles coupons on Saturday, so I buy when an item is free or dirt cheap, like under a quarter.

    Sponges are germ magnets, not easily sterilized. Dish cloths are better. Wrap a plastic mesh produce bag around your dish cloth for the scrubby effect. I even tied loose knots in one and used that all wadded up. Afterwards, I took the knots out and put it in the top shelf of the dishwasher, stuck on the little prongs. Free scrubby!
    Practical Parsimony recently posted In praise of my dehydrator and 50 pounds of bananas

    • That’s all very good advice. Thanks for posting such a thorough and detailed comment. I think some readers would respond to this advice better if presented a little less curtly, but this comment space is yours to use as you please.
      Gip

      • I did not think my reply was curt in the least. I am and was very tired. I stated facts as I see them just like everyone else on here does. I had lots of comments and just said it in as few words as possible, no frills so I would not have a comment longer than your post. Yes, the comments were short but not curt.

        I allowed my son to buy a big plastic truck that last such a little time that he never wanted another. My son and I were shopping for shirts for him in the most expensive store in town, locally owned and with out-of-sight prices when he was about nine-years-old. He kept telling me about the crooked plackets on shirts, the fly on pants, mismatched plaids, poorly sewn-on buttons, poorly sewn zippers, and a host of details. The clerk said she had never heard a child talk that way and wondered how he learned so much about garment construction. I told her he went shopping with me, I was a sewer, and I showed him why I was not buying certain garments for him, his sisters, his father or myself.

        I have a friend who was going to Walmart so he could get cheap gifts–sweaters, jeans, gloves, garbage for his family. I shopped for his whole family at Belks with him there, of course. He said he never went to Belk’s because he thought they were more expensive than Walmart. I took into account quality and sales. He was shocked at how little he spent for his whole family.

        We had made very nice Christmas gifts for all of them, but then he said that he should buy things so it would be a good Christmas. It was hopeless!

        We took his daughter shoe shopping. She did not want anything at the Galleria, ritzy mall. Nothing was cute at Belk. However, she was bleating about going to Pay Less. We went there and, of course, those were the only shoes she would have. She confided in me that she was the only person she knew that had never had shoes from Pay Less, that this was a big thrill and she could not wait to tell her friends.

        Children learn habits from parents. Her shoes she bought were tacky and not leather, so they did not last very long. But, those were her dress shoes for a short time. The child had never heard of the Galleria from anyone at her school. But, the lucky kids went to the next town for shoes from PayLess. There is nothing wrong with PayLess if you want cheap shoes, but their shoes never fit me.

        I introduced her to vinegar instead of the bargain cleaners her mother bought at the Dollar Tree. However, Dawn is cheaper at Dollar General. All my Dawn was free.

        The Dollar Tree is good for accessories and people for Christmas houses and scenes. Sometimes the faces are painted wrong, but who can see since they are so small?…lol.

        Crystal, I was not speaking of you when I made the comment, then remembered the dish towel gift.
        Practical Parsimony recently posted The Perfect Italian Meatball

    • You make a good point about kids being shown how to buy crap, which is why I welcome the opportunity each holiday season to guide my grandkids toward gift items that are of decent quality. And yes, we find them at the dollar store. In fact, now that I think about it from this angle, there is probably no better place to find natural teachable moments on this subject.

      Although the dish towel mentioned previously was chosen based on color alone, it just happened to be the best quality one on the rack. Considering the child was only 2.5, I simply gave thanks for this happy coincidence. Had it been the 10 year old, however, we would have examined and discussed the material and workmanship of each possible option. I’ve been really impressed with how quickly the older ones learn to evaluate quality and make wise purchase decisions, even when it means forgoing something they initially thought they couldn’t live without.
      Crystal recently posted Back to Selling Used Books Online

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