Deal or No Deal? Comparing Dollar Stores to Walmart & Others

Believe it or not, the dollar store has been around since at least 1955 when Dollar General opened up its first store in Springfield, Kentucky.

Granted, in terms of purchasing power, a dollar went a lot further back then – equivalent to just a hair under $8 today. Even so, when you walk into a dollar store, it quickly becomes apparent that inflation has done very little to reduce the size of its qualifying inventory.

In fact, my local dollar store carries such a wide variety of products, I am confident I could get by fairly well in a pinch if it were the only store in town; it even carries fresh produce.

Still, for every person that says dollar stores provide terrific bargains for a buck or less, you’ll find another who will say that you only get what you pay for. Others insist that if you aren’t careful, you can actually get ripped off at a dollar store.

It’s the modern version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? I know I was confused.

Time to Play Secret Shopper

That’s why last week I decided to spend a few hours and do a little comparison shopping in order to try and find out some of the best bargains dollar stores have to offer — and perhaps sniff out a few items that you might be better off getting somewhere else.

For my comparison I decided to compare 13 items I found at my local dollar store (99-Cent Only!) to the prices of similar items at my local Walmart, Rite Aid drug store, and Albertsons grocery supermarket.

Here is a summary of the results:

DollarStore

The Best Dollar Store Deals

1. Razor blades. Any man who uses a traditional razor will tell you that replacement blades are not cheap. The results of my survey wasn’t a close shave by any means.  The dollar store offered a 4-pack of off-brand blades for a Gillette Sensor razor for a buck. The best the closest competition could do was offer a name-brand pack at almost seven times the cost on an equivalent basis.

2.Batteries. The Wall Street Journal warns that you should always stay clear of dollar store batteries because of their inferior quality. While my dollar store couldn’t claim they had the cheapest batteries — the Walmart price was three cents lower –  they were still a deal. Even better, I was shocked to discover that the dollar store was not selling the poor-performing carbon zinc batteries, but higher-quality alkalines! Best of all, they were $3.50 cheaper than similar batteries found at Rite Aid.

3. Goldfish crackers. I love Pepperidge Farms’ goldfish-shaped crackers.   My local dollar store handily beat out the prices offered by Walmart and Albertsons. In case you’re wondering, the crackers at the dollar store really were worth their salt; they still still had more than a month to go before the “use by” date.

4. Tissue. On a per-count basis, the deal the dollar store was offering on their tissues was nothing to sneeze at; the closest competition found at my Albertsons grocery store was 43 percent more expensive.

The Worst Dollar Store Deals

1. Chili powder. Regardless of the quality you may think they offer, the conventional wisdom is that when it comes to price, dollar store spices can’t be beat. This survey turns that train of thought upside down, as Walmart had chili powder on sale for less than half the dollar store price. Talk about spicy deals.

2. Socks. The off-brand dollar store socks were not only significantly more expensive per pair than the name-brand competition at Walmart but, judging by the “feel test,” their quality was also much poorer. To wit, the dollar store socks were extremely thin and as scratchy as 60-grit sandpaper. Ouch.

3. Two-liter sodas. Walmart and Albertsons not only both had lower prices than the dollar store, but a larger selection too.

4. Toothpaste. Toothpaste was another one of those items the Wall Street Journal identified as something you probably want to stay away from at dollar stores, especially because the FDA identified “several counterfeit tubes that look like Colgate” sitting on dollar store shelves. My dollar store offered tubes of Colgate toothpaste, although I couldn’t tell if it was counterfeit or not. No matter; both Walmart and Rite Aid offered (presumably genuine) Colgate toothpaste at a lower equivalent price.

So What Did I Learn From This Little Exercise?

Aside from reaffirming my personal distaste for shopping, I discovered that there are some really great deals to be had at dollar stores. In fact, I still can’t get over the price savings on razor blades!

That being said, I also discovered that there are indeed items for sale at dollar stores that you can get cheaper somewhere else.

I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, Len, thanks for stating the obvious. Didn’t you learn anything else from this little exercise?”

Well, actually I did. If those dollar store socks are any indication, I know I’ll be telling the Honeybee to make sure she never ever buys my underwear at a dollar store — no matter how big the savings.

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    Penzo the undercover cop/shopper. Since you live in LA, when can we expect the movie?

    How did the store brand razors shave? That’s a great price if it doesn’t turn your skin into a Halloween mask.

    My wife will make 4 stops to buy what she wants at the best price. I don’t even like to make one stop, but that’s why she is in charge of the check book!

  2. 2

    cherie says

    This article really underscores how vital it is to know prices for the things you buy regularly.

    While I know I can always get a box of tissues at the dollar store, I can get a box of much softer and more pleasant to use tissues at many other places for under a dollar if I wait for a sale [or buy extra when it's on].

    I love our dollar stores, but there are quite a few things that I’d never buy there, far less that I do, simply because there isn’t any savings, or the savings is not worth the loss in quality.

  3. 3

    says

    This is an awesome post as you actually went out and did it! I hate shopping too although groceries are ok when I do them a little at a time.

  4. 4

    Alane says

    Hi Len, I go to the dollar store for greeting cards, which are wayyy overpriced at other stores! Worth the side trip -stock up! Oh and party supplies.

  5. 6

    says

    Hi Len, I never think to go to the dollar store because the stuff they advertise is junk I don’t want anyway. I didn’t realize there were potentially useful items in there! The razor blades alone are worth the trip. I resent paying more than a buck each for them. It seems the key is to know what you pay for the items you need regularly.

  6. 7

    says

    You really have to be careful at the dollar stores and watch for inferior products. I was purchasing powdered dishwasher soap at the dollar store and it started leaving an awful white film on all my dishes. I switched to a better brand at another store and now my dishes come out of the dishwasher sparkling clean. But there are many products I buy on a regular basis at the dollar store in my neighborhood. I agree with Alane about the greeting cards, two for a buck and decent cards too.

  7. 8

    Olivia says

    Time to dust off the price book and start making entries again….. Thanks for the prod in the right direction.

  8. 9

    says

    Len, I love love love dollar stores!! Amazing deals on so much stuff. Unfortunately my hubby said: NO MORE DOLLAR STORE RAZOR BLADES. His face was cut to shreds. Oh well!! (this one’s in my round up!)

    • 10

      says

      Barb, I am so glad you wrote about the razor blades! My husband uses the Gillette Sensor and they are so darn expensive. However, I would rather pay the money for razors than bandaids, so I guess I will stay away…

  9. 12

    says

    @Dr.Dean: I’ll let you know. As pointed out by a couple other readers below, it may turn out that I end up spending the money I save on razor blades on extra shaving cream to protect my sensitive face from cuts – and lots of band-aids. LOL
    @cherie: Great point about waiting for sales at the other places in order to take advantage of better quality merchandise – assuming you have the time and patience. I will say however that my local dollar store had plenty of name-brand merchandise there (I’ll assume the name brands weren’t counterfeit and instead simply overstock or discontinued items.)
    @Forest: Shopping is hard work for me. I was so tired after I got home, I felt like I had run a marathon! No kidding. I really don’t see how people find any pleasure in window shopping.
    @Alane: I did price greeting cards at my dollar store and they were 2 for $1.00 too. I didn’t include them on the list because it was too tough to quantify for comparison purposes. As for the party supplies – yes!!! Holiday stuff too. It was a few days before Halloween and as far as I am concerned it was the only place to go! I even ran into my neighbor there; she was loading up on Halloween candy and accessories. I even bought a bunch of glow sticks for 50 cents a pop.
    @Bret: If you think the dollar is in the dumps now, just wait until the Fed starts its QE2 program on Wednesday.
    @Jennifer: I’m getting worried about those razor blades after reading Barb’s comment. Looks like I owe the readers a follow-up blog post as soon as I get my nerve up. LOL
    @Olivia: And if you’re in the mood, please feel free to share your data with me and I’ll pass it on to the readers too! :-)
    @Barb: Uh oh. Thanks for the warning, Barb! Maybe this post should have been posted prior to Halloween. “His face was cut to shreds” is not what one wants to hear when getting a review on razor blades. LOL
    @Jenna: At your service, Jenna. I’m here to serve my readers. :-)

  10. 13

    says

    Definitely can pick up some great deals at the dollar store. Greeting cards -Yes! Gift bags and wrapping paper – Yes! Kid’s toys – No! Crayons and markers – No!

  11. 14

    Jenny says

    I’m addicted to the dollar stores. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but the last time I went I spent over $100!

  12. 15

    says

    Great job hustling it and taking the time to really now the difference.

    I really like the razor blade example. I currently use Gillette blades (my wife and I buy them bulk at Costco every summer) but the prices you mention for disposable ones makes me want to reconsider future decision.

    It is absolutely impossible for me not to walk into a dollar store and not find something I like. I recently bought great Halloween cards for family living away from us and it only cost us a few bucks.

    Nice post!

  13. 16

    Kim says

    although the tissue @ the $ store may be a “deal”… the quality of the product is very lacking. Using this tissue would result is skin breakdown to any exposed skin & therefore would result in the purchase of additional products to treat this exposure. One is better off buying decent tissue in the first place and saving money in the long run. :o]

  14. 17

    says

    @Dana: Thanks for additional tips!
    @Jenny: You’re right, maybe you shouldn’t admit that. LOL Just kidding. ;-)
    @JP: I love the gravatar! :-) Just so there is no misunderstanding – because you used the term “disposable” – I want to emphasize that the blades I priced from the dollar store are off-brand replacement blades that fit the Gillette Sensor razors (the ones with three blades). When I think of “disposable” blades I think of those single use Bic brand razors that you toss after one use.
    @Kim: It’s true, the buyer must beware, because sometimes the lack of quality will completely invalidate any savings. Still, with respect to tissue, I have seen name-brand (presumably high quality) tissues at the dollar stores on occasion. This time, that was not the case though. It’s really hit and miss.

  15. 18

    says

    Hey Len, most of the dollar stores around me have marked their prices up significantly. They are definitely not cheaper than shopping at CVS with coupons and sales.

    They actually have items for $10 or $15 in most of them!

  16. 19

    says

    I always love when the truth is uncovered and the myths are dispelled. Your secret shopping activity has shed some light on dollar store bargains vs. busts. I appreciate your hard work and yes tell the Honeybee $ store underwear are out! Can’t wait to share this one in my weekly reading post!

  17. 20

    says

    @Len: Thanks for clarifying that for me. I was thinking of the traditional yellow BIC disposable one or something of that nature. I can see the individual blades being a good idea to check out.

    Thanks!

  18. 21

    says

    @Khaleef: Wow. Ten dollar stuff in a dollar store? Everything in my 99-Cent Only store is 99.9999 cents or less. I saw a store at my local airport that is a $10 only store. Everything in the store is $10!
    @Suzanne: It was really my pleasure, but I must say it again: shopping really is hard work! If you ask me I strongly suspect most secret shoppers do really earn their money!

  19. 23

    says

    You’d be surprised how many different “dollar” stores have items for more than a dollar! The only stores that don’t are ones that advertise – “everything’s just $1″ at Dollar Tree, for instance.

    One thing you should look at a bit more critically are the prices at drug stores, ala Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens. When items aren’t on sale there, they can be downright outrageous!

  20. 24

    says

    Yeah, a lot of the items in the dollar stores around here are more than a dollar. Some of them I can understand – like floor tiles (yes, I’ve used them in my last 2 apartments). However, why do they sell deodorant for $1.19?

  21. 25

    Rusty says

    My time and gasoline are usually more important than the few cents or even dollars I might save by driving from store to store. I do not mind shopping nor do I mind using coupons, but the things we use regularly are usually bought in bulk from SAM’s or smaller quantities from Walmart. Walmart will match anyone’s price and take coupons. I do occasionally shop other stores if they have a particular brand or product I need. The dollar stores I’ve visited were often short on stock or the quality was questionable or simply horrid. Some are dirty and disorganized. So, I don’t bother. The stores I mentioned are close and easily accessible and their stock is dependable and usually the cheapest or very competitive. They also carry high quality products along with store brands that may or may not be acceptable quality. The point is, of course, I’m not wasting $4/gal gas and taking hours to save a few dollars, a method that usually costs more in the long run. The big plus is that SAM’s has the cheapest gas in the city.

  22. 26

    Libby says

    We have a unique situation in my neighborhood, the 99c Only Store and Walmart are right next to each other in the same shopping center. Cha-ching! There were a few things you missed on your list. Most people are afraid to buy food at these stores but canned goods can be a real bargain here. In fact, we’ve found grocery store brands here – Chicken of the Sea tuna, Hormel chili, even Hellmann’s/Best Foods mayo! You can also get good quality, NOT EXPIRED sauces for only $1 – Worcestershire, Green Jalapeno Sauce, Steak Sauce and Hot Wing Sauce. They aren’t name brand but for only $1 a bottle, they’re a bargain and they taste just as good as the name brands. Oh, and did I mention the fresh veggies? Occasionally, you can also find big brand refrigerated cookie dough (Pillsbury, etc) which you can put in the freezer and use at a later time. The best AA batteries are the Sony brand, 4 in a package for $1, at the dollar store.

    To all of those people who don’t think it is worth it, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it is all I have to say.

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