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Navigating the best bargains in dollar stores

It's easy to get into a bargain-hunting frenzy and go overboard when everything’s just a buck! ShopSmart magazine shares their guide to avoiding cheaply made items and spotting the best dollar deals.
/ Source: TODAY

It’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 ShopSmart magazine 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 Wal-Mart and Target. Shoppers visited nearly 100 stores. Then we did side-by-side comparisons of unit prices, the best way to measure value (to see the results, visit

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.

But first check out what our mystery shoppers found and learn how you can be a smart dollar-store shopper.

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 Wal-Mart. 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. Wal-Mart 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.

Surprising findings
Here are five things you might not know about dollar stores:

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.

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 carry 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 sound-alike 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.

Dollar-store favorites

  • Party suppliessuch as gift wrap, gift bags, ribbon, greeting cards, decorations and balloons.(Good for you! As we’vediscovered, you can get a gooddeal on many of those itemsat dollar stores. Bonus: one-stopparty shopping!)
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Paper products
  • Candles
  • School supplies
  • Coloring books

Safety alert: Yikes! 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. (Toothpaste antifreeze 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.

Dangers to kids

Toys with small parts: The mallet with the musical instrument is just theright shape and size to become lodged in a child’sthroat. It has a warning label, but in our book it fails tomeet safety standards designed to prevent choking.Our safety team lobbied for those standards after twokids died choking on a plastic nail from a toy toolbench. When you go to buy toys, take a toilet-paperroll — if the toy fits through it, that toy could be unsafefor kids under 3. Look for the rectangular yellow labelfor 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 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 likesoda bottles and baby bottles. The baby-bottle bubbles had nolabel 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.

Fire hazards

Tiki torches:Five minutes after thetorch at left was lit, thewoven basket that holdsthe oil canister caught onfire. The basket fireeventually burned out,but this is a potentiallyserious safety hazard.

Utility lighters:The green handle has a“child-proof” safety latch,but the flame doesn’t goout when you release thelighter’s trigger.

‘Toy’ lighters:It looks like a toy baseball bat, but when you pressdown on the attached baseball, a flame shoots out ofthe top. It has no safety latch and would clearly appealto kids. So does this bright yellow drill. Such noveltylighters are illegal in only a few states, but any lighterthat can be mistaken for a toy is a really bad idea.

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: “My dogs got sick from consuming rawhide chews purchased at a dollar store.” —Denise Jimenez, Corpus Christi, Texas

Batteries: “They were found to be defective.”—S. Klopf, New York

“They tend to be expired.” —Lisa Lepage, Greenwood, Ind.

Laundry soap: “Because it is more expensive than at Wal-Mart.” —Cindy brooks, bradenton, Fla.

Lightbulbs: “They said on the package good for 1,000 hours, and they were lucky to last 50.” —William Vermeer, marietta, Ga.

Toys: “Due to many recalls.” —Jacqueline, Spring, Texas

“Because of ongoing lead and safety problems.” —Tim O’brien, Girard, Ohio

“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

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.

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.

For more great shopping tips and advice, visit