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Dollar mania

How to spot the best bargains in dollar stores. Plus what never to buy there. You won't believe the unsafe stuff we found!

i l l u s t r at i o n s : l a u r a l j u n g kv i s t

32 consumer reports


subscribe now at september 2009



t's just a buck! Yes, that toilet plunger and those dinner plates over there and that package of batteries by the register. Even if everything isn't a buck--these days on average 77 percent of the items in dollar stores cost more--it's easy to get into a bargain-hunting frenzy and go overboard in those mini flea markets of the strip mall. That probably explains why these retailers are hiring workers and building new stores while others are suffering their worst downturn in more than 20 years. In this economy, even higher-

income shoppers are searching dollar stores for bargains. So we wondered: Do you always save there? To find out, our mystery shoppers fanned out across the country to compare the prices of 11 household items. They bought products at dollar stores and then looked for comparable generic or store brands in supermarkets, drugstores, and discount stores such as Walmart and Target. Shoppers visited nearly 100 stores. Then we did side-by-side comparisons of unit prices, the best way to measure value. See the table below for our results. We didn't test the quality of the products, but dollar stores are

notorious for selling cheaply made items. The "heavy duty" aluminum foil we bought at one store, for example, tore easily and was thinner than the supermarket store brand we bought, though it was less expensive. Foil that tears when you use it might not be a big deal but unsafe products are, and we found plenty of those when we sent our safety czar, Donald Mays, to a couple of local dollar stores. Turn to page 36 for a look at the items we picked up plus advice on what never to buy in those stores. But first check out what our mystery shoppers found and learn how you can be a smart dollar-store shopper.

treasure huNtiNG

When we asked shopsmart readers about dollar stores, more than one in 10 of you said that you go to them more often now than you did a year ago. Here's what you said are your favorite things to buy in those stores. DoLLar-store Favorites

surprisiNG FiNDiNGs

Here are five things you might not know about dollar stores.

You CaN orDer oNLiNe. but you'll have to buy large quantities. Dollar tree, for example, offers by-the-case online shopping. Items are still $1 apiece, but there's a $4.95 handling fee no matter what you order. You CaN BuY FooD there. In recent months many dollar stores have expanded their grocery inventories, adding refrigerator and freezer cases. Frozen food is their fastest-growing category. Not aLL take returNs. Dollar tree doesn't accept returns (or coupons), but you can exchange any unopened item as long as you have a receipt. Dollar General will let you return its private-label merchandise. but some dollar stores don't take returns. check the store's policy before you buy to make sure you aren't stuck with something you don't want. theY sometimes seLL Name BraNDs. It's not all off-brand junk. Dollar General carries Kleenex, coke, nabisco, Hershey's, 3m, Fisher-price, and other biggies. Family Dollar sells bugle boy clothing. but watch out for potentially inferior or unsafe soundalike brands. Not everYthiNG Costs $1. Dollar General and some other stores with dollar in their names sell items for up to $20. And then again, some things cost even less than a buck.

party supplies such as gift wrap, gift bags, ribbon, greeting cards, decorations, and balloons. (Good for you! As we've discovered, you can get a good deal on many of those items at dollar stores. bonus: one-stop party shopping!) Cleaning supplies paper products Candles school supplies Coloring books

Where the savings are--and aren't

our team of mystery shoppers surveyed prices across the country at dollar stores, supermarkets, Cvs, target, Walgreens, and Walmart. the verdict: prices at dollar stores were either the cheapest or among the cheapest for many items, especially party supplies like napkins, paper plates, and gift wrap, as you'll see below. Walmart also had good bargains. But check unit prices. You might pay $1 for birthday candles at a dollar store, but the per-candle cost could be the same or lower elsewhere. one other thing we learned: unless you have coupons, you might want to skip Cvs. it charges up to three times more than other stores for many items.

heavy-duty aluminum foil

Lowest price highest price Dollarstore deal?

3 cents per square foot at dollar stores 8 cents per square foot at one grocery store Dollar stores win hands down on price.


Birthday candles

4 cents per candle at dollar stores, Walmart 12 cents per candle at some dollar stores some dollar stores had the cheapest price while others had the highest price. only Walmart consistently had the lowest price.


Brown paper bags

2 cents per bag at many places we shopped 5 cents per bag at cVs and one dollar store Dollar stores tied with most other stores except cVs. the 3-cent-per-bag difference can add up if your family brown bags it daily.


Composition notebook

1 cent per page at many dollar stores, target, Walmart, grocery stores 3 cents per page at cVs Again, it's a tie except for cVs. And these notebooks are easy to find for $1.


16-ounce plastic cups

5 cents per cup at most dollar stores, grocery stores, target, Walmart 13 cents per cup at cVs

security envelopes

2 cents per envelope at dollar stores, Walmart 6 cents per envelope at cVs most stores sold a box of 40 envelopes for $1, so buy those wherever you happen to be (except cVs).


Gift wrap

2 cents per square foot at some dollar stores 17 cents per square foot at one grocery store Dollar stores had the cheapest prices. but target had a good selection of wraps ranging in price from 5 cents to 17 cents per square foot.



½ cent per napkin at many stores, including dollar stores and target 1½ cents per napkin at cVs paper napkins are cheap no matter where you buy them--except at cVs, which charged three times the price.


Foam plates

3 cents per plate at some dollar stores, Walmart, some groceries 7 cents per plate at cVs

Cotton rounds

1 cent per pad at dollar stores 3½ cents per pad at cVs, several grocery stores For something you use every day to remove eye makeup, the dollar-store savings could really add up over time.


tissue paper

2 cents per square foot at Walgreens 10 cents per square foot at some dollar stores this is the one product we shopped for that it doesn't pay to buy at dollar stores.


prices at dollar stores were among the cheapest.


We asked shoppers to pick up 8- or 9-inch foam plates, and many found them for about 4 cents a plate. Dollar stores usually had the cheapest package prices.


34 consumer reports


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Yikes! alert Look what we found.

safety comes before savings, so be careful about what you buy at dollar stores, which have a reputation for selling unsafe products. (toothpasteantifreeze scare ring a bell?) We took our safety czar, Donald mays, to a local dollar store and he found plenty of things to worry about. We tested the items at right in our labs for safety problems.

Other products NOT to buy at the dollar store

In addition to toys (which might be choking hazards), lighters (which look like toys to kids and might not meet safety standards), and the other items shown at left, avoid buying the products below at dollar stores. Also be careful of brand knockoffs. We once bought Dinacell batteries that leaked. And if you're buying food or personal-care items, be especially careful about potential counterfeits. If that colgate toothpaste doesn't taste or smell quite right, toss it. beware. We found small inflatable whistles that could easily get lodged in a child's throat and block the airway. Although the toys also had a warning label for kids under 3 years old, mays called them "an absolutely perfect choking hazard for any child under 8." poteNtiaLLY harmFuL suBstaNCes We found bubble-blowing liquid in containers that look just like soda bottles and baby bottles. the baby-bottle bubbles had no label to identify the liquid for poison control in case a child drank it. even if it is nontoxic, it's not something a child should drink. vitamiNs In the past we found that some dollar-store multis didn't have the amount of nutrients listed on the label. aspiriN aND other meDs We found children's aspirin due to expire in just over a month and infant gas-relief drops past their expiration date. eLeCtriCaL proDuCts extension cords, lamps, and other electrical products might have a fake uL label vouching for their safety. the danger: undersized wiring or other substandard components that can overheat and cause a fire. JeWeLrY millions of pieces of kids' jewelry have been recalled in recent years because of high lead content. new laws limit the amount of lead allowed, and the good news is that items we tested were below that limit. but older products containing lead might still be on store shelves.

Never aGaiN!

We asked shopsmart readers what they'd never buy again in a dollar store. Below are some of their responses. many readers told us that they worry about the quality of medications, vitamins, personal-care items, tools, and electronics. and some said they had purchased cookies, chips, and other foods that turned out to be stale or past their expiration dates. readers also had concerns about the country of origin, particularly of drugs and children's items.

pet proDuCts

Dangers to kids

toYs With smaLL parts the mallet with the musical instrument is just the right shape and size to become lodged in a child's throat. It has a warning label, but in our book it fails to meet safety standards designed to prevent choking. our safety team lobbied for those standards after two kids died choking on a plastic nail from a toy tool bench. When you go to buy toys, take a toilet-paper roll--if the toy fits through it, that toy could be unsafe for kids under 3. Look for the rectangular yellow label for specific warnings. partY Favors It's tempting to buy kids' party favors at a dollar store. they're cheap and a lot of them look like fun. Just

"my dogs got sick from consuming rawhide chews purchased at a dollar store." --Denise Jimenez, corpus christi, texas

LauNDrY soap

"Because it is more expensive than at Walmart."

--cindy brooks, bradenton, Fla.


"they said on the package good for 1,000 hours, and they were lucky to last 50."

--William Vermeer, marietta, Ga.


--s. Klopf, new York

"they were found to be defective." "they tend to be expired."

--Lisa Lepage, Greenwood, Ind.

Fire hazards

tiki torChes Five minutes after the torch at left was lit, the woven basket that holds the oil canister caught on fire. the basket fire eventually burned out, but this is a potentially serious safety hazard. utiLitY LiGhters the green handle has a "child-proof" safety latch, but the flame doesn't go out when you release the lighter's trigger. `toY' LiGhters It looks like a toy baseball bat, but when you press down on the attached baseball, a flame shoots out of the top. It has no safety latch and would clearly appeal to kids. so does this bright yellow drill. such novelty lighters are illegal in only a few states, but any lighter that can be mistaken for a toy is a really bad idea.


"Because of ongoing lead and safety problems."

--tim o'brien, Girard, ohio

"Due to many recalls."

--Jacqueline, spring, texas



"Certain trinkets or toys, because they are too cheap and break easily. i would rather spend a couple dollars more and get something a little better." --Anonymous, Illinois

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36 consumer reports




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