A dollar is a dollar – until it’s $1.25. Dollar Tree’s recent price increase – most items formerly $1 are now $1.25 - means it’s time to take a look at the value you’re getting at dollar stores.
If you find yourself filling your basket with dollar-store buys that you never use because the quality is poor or the brand is unfamiliar, then you’re simply wasting money.
We recently revisited Dollar Tree stores, where everything sells for around $1.25 or less, in central Virginia (Dollar Tree operates more than 15,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada operating under the Dollar Tree and Family Dollar names). We wanted another look at what was on the shelves. We were careful to compare prices and packaging of those items with prices and packaging at other retailers, a key step to successful dollar-store shopping. We also talked to shopping experts for their guidance.
One tip right off the bat: Pay attention to sizes and quantities. Manufacturers will often offer special versions of their products as they work to make a profit at the dollar stores’ fixed price point. For the consumer, this isn’t necessarily a show stopper, but it does make comparisons to offerings at other retailers difficult. You need to keep a close eye on unit cost and even what those units are – items? Ounces? Pounds?
Take a look at 17 of the worst things to buy at dollar stores, either because the price is high or the quality is low – or, in some cases, both.
Dollar store experts and deals sites have long been warning shoppers about buying batteries at dollar stores, especially carbon-zinc batteries. Carbon-zinc batteries don’t last as long as alkaline batteries, and they can damage devices if they leak. The $1.25 packets of “heavy duty” batteries I found at Dollar Tree came under the e-Circuit and Panasonic brands and both were stamped with a warning: “Use for low-drain devices,” such as remotes and clock radios.
“While the prices are enticing, they just don't last and end up costing you more money than buying Duracell, Energizer, or even the Kirkland brand at Costco,” said Kyle James, founder of Rather-Be-Shopping.com.
Finding good prices on beauty products is almost always a challenge. However, don’t try any shortcuts at dollar stores.
“If something is not a name brand, skip it, especially with skin care products, and especially those with SPF, which tends to degrade over time,” says smart shopping expert Trae Bodge of TrueTrae. “It’s hard to tell how long these products have been sitting on the shelves, and it’s not worth the risk.”
There are exceptions. “Some name-brand beauty products are available at the dollar store, so if you spot a favorite brand and the product looks fresh, I’d say go for it,” says Bodge. “One of my favorite mass brands, Maybelline, sells their excellent gel nail polish at Dollar Tree!”
Wellness products and vitamins can be expensive, but the solution to savings isn’t at the dollar store.
“Anything for internal use, like vitamins, should be skipped,” says Bodge. “Don’t take any chances – just shop at the pharmacy, a big box store or wholesale warehouse for those.”
Non-ingestible wellness products are just fine to buy at dollar stores. “Name-brand cotton balls/swabs are good to get at the dollar store, but I would avoid generics,” says Bodge.
Buying school supplies isn’t just for an August frenzy.
When restocking kiddos during the course of the school year, the $1.25-or-less lure is tempting when stocking up on school supplies, but quality appeared low on some of the products I saw and handled at Dollar Tree. Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews, agrees.
“Considering that quality is usually pretty bad, you could find yourself with mechanical pencils that have cheap lead which breaks often, pens that stop writing even though they should have plenty of ink, or even regular pencils that even when sharpened don't write so well,” says Ramhold.
For your school supplies, “you're better off buying a bulk pack at a warehouse store, as these will often be name-brand instruments in larger packages,” she says. “I can personally confirm that a box of Ticonderoga pencils from a warehouse store got me through at least three years of college without having to buy more.”
Other Perishable and Non-Perishable Food
Those munchies and cheap eats call your name when you’re shopping at the dollar store, but, again, beware any products you’ll actually put in you.
“With perishable and packaged foods (including candy and drinks), freshness and quality can be questionable, so I would proceed with caution, unless the food is in a can (canned goods have a longer shelf life than other packaging options),” says Bodge. “Because you have no idea how long something has been sitting around, look for expiration dates. Also, while I’m pro-generic at the grocery store, in this case I would opt for name brands over generics.”
And even if you’ve verified freshness, is that $1.25 price tag really a value? Not during our price checks. For instance, a 15.5-ounce can of Goya red kidney beans was $1.25 at Dollar Tree. At a nearby Walmart supermarket in central Virginia, the same-size can of Goya red kidney beans cost $1.22. In most cases it’s best to opt instead for supermarkets, which frequently mark down prices on canned goods and also offer trusted store brands that are especially cheap even when they aren’t on sale.
When it comes to tool time, do-it-yourselfers like me get testy with tools we can’t trust. If a tool failure complicates a repair, the savings on socket wrench, say, will evaporate quickly. And shopping experts encourage us to steer away from the dollar store’s tools section. The quality of tools sold at dollar stores is low, and the products probably won’t last long.
"Think things like screwdrivers, tape measures, paint brushes, wrenches and the like,” says James of RatherBeShopping. “Yes, they are cheap, but so is the quality. Trust me on this one: They will do nothing but frustrate you over time.”
Toys and Costumes
Toys rank high on our experts’ list of things not to buy at dollar stores.
“It's rare that you find name-brand toys at dollar stores,” says Ramhold. “And if you aren't seeing name-brand toys, odds are they're going to be cheap playthings that break pretty easy. Even if they're only $1 or $2, that still amounts to wasted money that could've been spent better elsewhere.”
Adds Bodge, “I would skip toys across the board. The quality is always disappointing, and the last thing any parent needs is a sad child whose toy broke on the first day of play. Because the toys may be poorly made, there are also potential safety hazards, like small parts that could break off and be swallowed, or battery-operated toys that could overheat.”
Bodge also isn’t too keen on getting costumes for any season from dollar stores.
“While your dollar store will be brimming with costumes every season, remember that they will be of very poor quality,” Bodge says. “Small accessories, like hats, glasses, crowns, or gloves are fine, but you don’t want to be itching all night from the fabric of your dollar store costume.”
No surprise here: You probably already know what you’re getting into if you're making a conscious effort to go to a dollar store to stock up on jewelry. We turned to the experts anyway.
“Skip jewelry unless it’s costume jewelry for a costume,” says Bodge. “What I mean by that is that if you find a piece that you like and plan to wear it once, you’re probably OK. But, if you plan to get some real use out of that ring or necklace, you’ll be disappointed.”
Ramhold agrees. “These pieces are cheap for a reason, and it at least means they're often not very durable,” she says. “At best, you can expect the pieces to break; at worst, these trinkets might actually discolor the skin they come into contact with or even cause allergic reactions to those with sensitive skin.”
With inflation roaring away in the supermarket aisles, it may be tempting to buy frequently used cleaning products at dollar stores. However, you may be wasting money on a weak product.
“Skip liquid detergents, unless there is an expiration date,” says Bodge. “Liquid detergents tend to lose their efficacy over time, so if the product has been on the shelf for over a year, it won’t be as effective.”
Windshield Washer Fluid
A gallon of Driver’s Choice windshield washer fluid at Dollar Tree is $1.25. A gallon of V.I.P Super Tech windshield washer fluid at Walmart supermarket was more than twice as much at $3.27. One colored liquid is as good as the next, right?
Not really, and here’s the rub: The jug at Dollar Tree says it isn’t effective in the winter, when people living in colder climates need it most! (Not to mention that letting a windshield washer system freeze up could be costly.) The Walmart windshield washer fluid promises it’s good in sub-zero temperatures.
Plastic Food Storage
Waste not, want not starts with storing leftovers. But don’t go with plastic food containers from the dollar store, Bodge warns.
“Whether we are cooking with these containers or using them in the microwave or dishwasher, applying heat can release toxins in certain plastics,” says Bodge. “Because you’d be unlikely to find BPA-free or other ‘safe’ plastics at the dollar store, I would avoid this category unless you plan to use them for storing non-food items.”
Hey, we all gotta go. Toilet paper is a product not to scrimp on, and you probably won’t enjoy your constitutional with TP from the dollar store.
“There are two scenarios to buying toilet paper at a dollar store, and neither are preferable,” says Ramhold. “For one, you could find yourself buying off-brand toilet paper that has fewer fibers or is 1-ply, or both. It's not a good combo, and you could find yourself having to use more toilet paper on your bathroom breaks. The second is that you might be able to buy name-brand, good quality TP, but the price won't be worth it. Price per unit is bound to be higher than if you shopped elsewhere, so even if you're getting good quality, your wallet is still losing.”
And think of your guests, too. You don’t want to be that guy with the sandpaper.
Oh, yes, of course. Same as it is with TP, you’re just not going to get quality paper towels at a good price at the dollar store.
Says Ramhold, “If you're buying paper towels at dollar stores, you're probably overpaying. And if you're not overpaying, you might be getting cheaper quality. That might seem like a good idea when figuring out your grocery budget, but if you're having to use more paper towels to clean up messes, you're not saving yourself any money – or time.”
Electrical Products and Charger Cords
Don’t have high expectations about electronics from the dollar store. Same as it ever was, you get what you pay for.
Says Bodge, “You’ll find plenty of power cords, earbuds and other tech accessories at the dollar store. The price tag will be appealing, but there’s no knowing if the manufacturing of these items is up to snuff. Given that you’d be plugging them into your beloved smartphone or tablet, why chance it?”
RatherBeShopping’s James has some experience here. “I made the mistake of purchasing a dollar store power cord for my phone when I was in a pinch, and it lasted only a couple days before the cord stopped charging unless it was in the perfect spot,” says James.
You’re putting that in your hair? Savings and shopping experts warn shoppers not to bother with toiletries from dollar stores.
“Much like what goes in your medicine cabinet, buying toiletries at dollar stores will usually mean paying more per unit than at other retailers,” says Ramhold. “While you might not be able to justify buying a warehouse-sized bottle of shampoo, that doesn't mean you need to opt for the same brand at a dollar store -- opt for shopping at big box stores like Target, instead. Not only will you have more choices to fit your budget, but the price per ounce is likely to be better as well.”
We’ve told you before, around the holidays, that while wrapping paper seems inexpensive at dollar stores, you’d be penny-wise and pound-foolish to stock up on it.
“Unless you're wrapping a ton of gifts all year long, it might not make sense to have a cabinet full of versatile wrapping paper available,” says Ramhold. “But if you think grabbing a roll or two from a dollar store will get you through the holiday season, think again. The quality of the paper is typically lacking, and can mean it rips easier -- which then translates into having to use more tape and paper to cover up those mistakes, or outright rewrap. During a busy holiday season, this can end up being a timesuck and a money pit. Even if you think you can make bad quality paper work for you, keep in mind that the price per square foot at dollar stores is often way worse than what you'll find even in big box stores.”
If you’re looking for one-and-done beach towels, meaning you’re going to throw them away afterwards, $1.25 a towel might seem a bargain. But that would be wasteful. And bear in mind beach towels from dollar stores are flimsy and won’t do the hard work – drying you off – when push comes to shove.
Bob is a Senior Online Editor at Kiplinger.com. He has more than 40 years of experience in online, print and visual journalism. Bob has worked as an award-winning writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., market as well as at news organizations in New York, Michigan and California. Bob joined Kiplinger in 2016, bringing a wealth of expertise covering retail, entertainment, and money-saving trends and topics. He was one of the first journalists at a daily news organization to aggressively cover retail as a specialty, and has been lauded in the retail industry for his expertise. Bob has also been an adjunct and associate professor of print, online and visual journalism at Syracuse University and Ithaca College. He has a master’s degree from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a bachelor’s degree in communications and theater from Hope College.
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