Dollar Stores: Not just for college students anymore

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I first discovered dollar stores when I went to college. My local mall had a Dollar Tree, and I explored it extensively, delighting in the tons of weird, semi-useless junk that filled every inch of the place. I bought most of my dorm decorations there, loading up on silly refrigerator magnets, useless ceramic cows (they made great gifts for friends who were majoring in Animal Sciences), and candle-powered incense cookers. Sometimes, as in the case of the incense cookers, my purchases didn't work out too well; the incense had a narcotic effect, so every time I put a batch on to cook, I'd wake up a half hour later, dazed, headachy, and unable to remember my name. Most of the time, though, I went in with low expectations, which meant that my dollar store purchases left me extremely happy.

As time went on, I discovered other inexpensive retail establishments, like Wal-Mart, the YMCA thrift store, and the local Target. The plastic items clogging up the dollar store started to seem cheap and junky, and I decided that my dollar store days were behind me. This isn't to say that I abandoned the Dollar Tree completely: every December, I would return to buy toy guns, wooden puzzles, and other cheap, fun toys to jam into my family's Christmas stockings. For all its low-budget campy-ness, I could always count on my local dollar store to come through with fun holiday presents that my family and I could enjoy, albeit with a truckload of irony.


When I moved to New York, I immediately noticed the plethora of dollar stores in my neighborhood. At the height of its dollar store renaissance, my Southwest Virginia town could brag of having only three dollar stores. My Bronx neighborhood, on the other hand, has at least a dozen. In fact, just for comparison purposes, I decided to count all the dollar stores between my home and my gym. I came up with seven: "99¢ Depot," "S&T Discount 99¢," "Sowell 99¢," "AAA 99¢, Discount 99¢ and 79¢," "99¢ and Cigarettes," and "All Items 99¢ and up."

Actually, to be completely precise, there aren't any dollar stores in my neighborhood, but there are an awful lot of 99¢ stores. This seems like a great deal until you realize that, with tax, 99¢ comes to $1.07. I guess $1.07 stores don't have the same ring.

Surprisingly, these 99¢ stores are all distinctly different. For example, "99¢ and Cigarettes" is a nice little place. Most of its merchandise is comprised of unrecognizable off brands, but it does a nice side business in low-priced DVDs, and it features a wide selection of plastic action figures of characters that you've long since forgotten. If you're looking for an Eddie Munster doll or a $1 copy of Return to Gilligan's Island, this is your joint. It's a great place for discovering weird surprises, but it also has some questionable merchandise. For example, my wife once found vacuum cleaner bags here after we'd searched all over Manhattan for them; on the other hand, I once bought a fluorescent light bulb here, only to discover that the sickly, greenish-blue light that it put out made me look like a corpse.

"S&T Discount" is dark and crowded, with narrow aisles and a filthy floor. Most of its items are in dusty plastic containers, and they often feature mysterious stains. I went in once, but have never felt any desire to return; frankly, it seems like a nice place to have a chalk outline done, but I wouldn't want to buy something there.

"99¢ Depot," located on the corner of Kingsbridge Road and Fordham Road is a veritable palace. Clean, well-lit, and staffed with moderately helpful clerks, it features many of the same brands as the local grocery stores, but charges a lot less. It's where I go for Poland Spring water ($1 a gallon), and it also carries numerous other brand-name foodstuffs, including Gatorade, Capri Sun, Goya (if my neighborhood had an official brand, it would be Goya), and a huge selection of Cadbury, Hershey's, and Mars candies. In fact, the 99¢ Depot resembles nothing quite so much as a general store. It has plants, clothing, cookware, kitchen gadgets, Tupperware, food, milk, soap, hygiene supplies, and other items that are too numerous to mention. Frankly, I prefer it to most of the grocery stores in my neighborhood, and its prices are a lot better.

The Detroit News recently ran an article noting that many upscale customers have started shopping at dollar stores. Although these places have long been a bastion of the lower and lower-middle classes, they are starting to widen their customer base as affluent consumers realize that they often carry the same brands as their more mainstream counterparts. Furthermore, with the cost of groceries and other consumer goods soaring, it makes sense to find bargains wherever they may be. The only suggestions that I would give are these: first off, be very careful about buying off-brands. Most of the time, it doesn't matter, but my fluorescent lightbulb experience has taught me that it's better to just buy Sylvania or GE. Also, when buying perishable items, be sure to check the expiration date!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He still buys milk from the grocery store.

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