I've long considered myself something of a dollar store hobbyist, always keen to explore those strange overstuffed and understaffed emporiums. I like to think this is a sign of my sense of adventure, or my appreciation for the possibility of finding treasure among the stacks of plastics, paper goods and other environmentally noxious items.
My ex thought it was because I was cheap. Such disagreements may have had something to do with my recent need to outfit a new home for myself. And my habit has turned into something resembling a full-time job.
In recent years, chains like Matthews, N.C.-based Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Dollar General have proliferated, adding hundreds of outlets to the existing assortment of mom-and-pop shops, the descendants of the traditional five-and-dime stores. Some of that growth can be attributed to the recession, of course, and belt-tightening up and down the economic ladder. But something else may be at work, too.
Indeed, while old-time one-buck peddlers hawked mostly cheap plastic products that wore out in a matter of days (but could clog a landfill for a lifetime), nowadays many dollar stores sell merchandise made of real glass, stainless steel, ceramics or fabric (and not polyester).
In the last few months, I've outfitted or accessorized a kitchen, bathroom, office, dining room and several other rooms with all manner of $1 purchases.
My son's room has been decorated with $1 letters covered in $1 paint spelling out his name (JAKE), and his fish swims around a $1 Elmo figurine. My pantry is stocked with $1 herbs in $1 jars, and $1 soups stacked alongside $1 canned veggies. I've amassed a collection of $1 ground spices (like cumin, cinnamon and mustard) and $1 salts (celery, bacon and garlic, among others).
I used $1 remedies while moving in (aspirin, muscle rub, bandages) and $1 luxuries to help me relax after (bubble bath, baby oil, cocktail glasses). I found $1 books to read (or leaf through, anyway) and $1 movies to mock. I washed clothes, dishes and myself with $1 soaps, and counters, tubs and sinks with $1 solvents. And I trudged from dollar shop to dollar shop with a $1 stocking cap pulled over my $1-fixated head.
In total, I spent about $200 in dollar stores in pursuit of products that I once might have bought from better-known, and more expensive, retailers.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the recent success of dollar stores. In November, for example, Dollar Tree, the largest chain that sells only $1 items, reported quarterly net sales of $1.6 billion at its more than 4,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada, up nearly 12 percent from the same period the previous year. And last month, Family Dollar, which has a whopping 7,100 stores in 45 states and carries items with prices that can reach the double digits (a $35 home music system, too rich for my blood), reported setting a new record in the fall, with more than $2.1 billion in net sales of what it calls "a mix of name brands and quality, private brand merchandise."
From the consumer's point of view, it is hard to beat the big chains, which sometimes offer upward of 10,000 products in a single store.
The pull of addiction
Cleaning supplies and perishable items like food, health and beauty products make up about half of Dollar Tree's business, said Timothy Reid, the company's vice president of investor relations. But such items often lead to purchases of durable goods like glasses, plates and stemware. So some Dollar Tree stores now have a dedicated housewares section.
As Joshua Braverman, a Family Dollar spokesman, put it, cleaning goods are "almost like the gateway product" for many dollar store shoppers.
"It starts with cleaning goods," he said, "and ends up with a bedspread."
Within days of moving to my new apartment in late September, I began feeling the pull of addiction.
As Braverman predicted, my first stop was innocent enough: a small 99-cent store, where I bought a few bars of soap, a shower caddy, a trash can. Nothing major, nothing that required a bill larger than $5. No problem.
But a few days later, I discovered the Cristar collection at Yankee One Dollar, a chain of 32 stores in New York and Vermont, and soon I had acquired four tumblers. I added champagne flutes and cocktail and wine glasses. Nearby, I noticed a nice glass vase and some decent votive candle holders. Which required votive candles, of course. Then I realized I needed some kitchen stuff, too: a ladle, a spatula, a set of wooden spoons. And look at those coffee mugs. ...
I broke a $20.
Then came the holidays. Dollar stores are masters of the seasonal sale. At Dollar Tree, the holiday merchandise is always displayed at the front of the store to lure people in toward other aisles, where they might find things like a "Star Wars" puzzle, a set of playing cards or a "Cars 2" sticker book, all for $1 each. Those aisles lead the shopper to the cleaning supplies - a-ha! - and then on to foodstuffs and beauty goods and spices.
I found myself reaching for a set of matching plates and bowls (red, like my bottom line) and my corporate card.
Soon, though, I hit rock bottom. The occasion was a visit to an indie dollar store, which like many of its kind was part immigrant entrepreneurship, part bait-and-switch. Not everything, it turned out, was 99 cents; many prices simply ended in 99 cents. But by this point, I fancied myself a savvy shopper, able to find the deals amid the detritus.
I knew I had a problem when I picked up the MSG (just 99 cents).
Here was a product I would never use - would never even touch - if it weren't for the appeal of the price. And yet, I bought it.
I began to panic. What was I doing? Had I become a crass consumer? A hoarder? Or, worse still, was my ex right, that I was simply a cheapskate?
Once I got home, I calmed down. Much of what I had purchased over the last several months, I decided, was OK. My desk was well-organized, my pantry well-stocked and my bathroom nearly spotless. My son had some nifty toys, and I had an impressive collection of glassware.
I also had a lot of things I didn't need: three sets of salt shakers, two bottles of ground cinnamon and, of course, the MSG.
What I needed, I realized, was to purge - to rid myself of all those unnecessary items. Throwing them away would make me feel better. But first I needed a decent trash bag.
And I knew just where to get one.