While dollar stores can offer great deals, be careful to not overbuy. “A sale on an item you need is wonderful,” says Jeff Galak, an associate professor of marketing. “A sale on an item you don’t need is useless.” (iStock)
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Nearly 90 percent of Americans have visited a dollar store at some point, according to Consumer Reports. And it’s no wonder. They’re practically everywhere, and with inflation affecting many households, they’re a budget-friendly way to cope with increasing grocery prices and tight budgets.

They’re not without their downsides: Dollar stores have been criticized for low wages, staffing issues, a lack of fresh food in most stores and contributing to food deserts. But brands including Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General continue to open new stores across the country. Dollar Tree and Family Dollar (owned by the same corporation) operate more than 16,000 stores; Dollar General has more than 19,000.

“Dollar stores are growing in popularity because consumers are feeling the pinch of inflation and even buying generics or only shopping sales isn’t enough. They are looking for alternatives,” says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst with DealNews.

Shopping at a dollar store may mean sacrificing choices and brand names, but the appeal lies in their affordability and convenience, rather than special offers or varied merchandise, says Jeff Galak, an associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

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Getting a good deal isn’t a given, though. Pam Maxwell, an Instagram influencer specializing in dollar stores, estimates that you can actually find better prices at grocery stores on about 30 percent of the merchandise at dollar stores. And despite having the word “dollar” in their names, these days the stores sell few products for $1. Dollar Tree, for instance, has raised its base price to $1.25, with specially-marked Dollar Tree Plus items — typically higher-quality products or larger sizes — for $3 or $5. At Family Dollar, prices range from $1 to $10, with most inventory priced between $3 and $5. Dollar General is even pricier than its counterparts, with only a handful of items at $1 and most prices from $3 to $10, but it carries more name brands and a greater selection, Ramhold says.

These stores can sell products at a lower price because the items are custom-made in smaller sizes. But that doesn’t always translate to savings. The key to finding a good deal is to pay attention to the “per-unit cost” — the price per ounce or item in a package. You wouldn’t want to spend $1.25 on a three-ounce tube of toothpaste, for example, when you could buy a six-ounce tube for $1.50 at your grocery store. “Comparing products and unit pricing takes a ton of time and effort, but it pays to do the math,” Galak says. A basic calculator or smartphone app can help.

Dollar stores also carry more name-brand products than in the past, sometimes because stores receive overstock or closeout items (although Dollar General said in an email that it doesn’t sell overstock). And there are occasional hidden gems. At my local Dollar Tree, for example, I paid $1.25 for a 16-ounce container of Quiet & Roar body wash; a 20.2-ounce container typically retails for $6.99 at Target. Maxwell says she has found family size boxes of Lucky Charms cereal for a fraction of what she normally pays. And we’ve both spotted brands such as Goli, Tide, Dove, Vaseline, Softsoap, Colgate, Clorox and others at various dollar retailers.

But brands and deals can vary widely by location and day. Inventory distribution is based on location, demographics and even which retailers are nearby. One store may stock more groceries, while another offers more beauty supplies. Wealthier neighborhoods may receive more name-brand items, and delivery and stocking dates are inconsistent. To take advantage of the best deals, Maxwell suggests asking store clerks when they replenish the shelves.

What to buy and what to avoid

When it comes to specific products, party supplies such as paper plates, cups, napkins, silverware, tablecloths, tongs, bowls, streamers and gift bags are among the best buys. Dollar Tree also sells greeting cards at two for $1, making them a great deal. Maxwell says makeup can be a good find when you spot brand names such as ELF, Cover Girl, Maybelline and Hard Candy. Pantry staples including boxed pasta salad, mac and cheese and peanut butter are usually on par with — or cheaper than — what you’d find at a big box retailer.

Culinary supplies and kitchen tools are another reliable buy, says Brian Theis, author of “The Infinite Feast: How To Host The Ones You Love.” These include aluminum baking pans, colanders, whisks, spatulas, measuring cups, wooden spoons and food storage containers. Spices are another good investment, he says. “Why pay $12 for a jar of smoked paprika when you can get it for $1.25 at a dollar store? It may not have the same punch or flavor profile but gets the job done.” The same goes for salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and chili powder. Just be sure to check expiration dates.

It’s best to avoid trash bags, medication, no-name batteries and anything with an electrical plug, because they may be of inferior quality or sold in smaller quantities.

Angie Sims, who blogs about crafting on a budget at Purple Craft Diva, buys most of her supplies at dollar stores. “The wood craft pieces at Dollar Tree are a definite win,” she says. “They are good quality and almost the same product you would find at Joann or Hobby Lobby for double the price.” She also likes to stock up on foam pool noodles, which can be used for tufted headboards, floral arrangements and more, as well as craft tools, which sell for $10 to $15 each at a specialty store. She avoids purchasing paint and glue at dollar stores, though, because she says they may have been watered down.

Use coupons to increase savings

Most dollar stores accept manufacturer coupons, yielding even greater savings. Dollar General also has digital coupons on its website and app. Maxwell says that the chain frequently offers coupons for $5 off a $25 purchase, which can be used in conjunction with manufacturer coupons.

If you can’t find what you need at your nearest Dollar Tree, most things — including their Plus items — are available on their website. While some products must be purchased by the case when ordered online, there are hundreds of things available in smaller quantities. “What I like about ordering online is many of the items are available to be shipped free to your local store,” Maxwell says.

And stock up as much as you can. Because dollar store fans often share their finds on social media, many of the best deals are fleeting. “If you see something, grab it because it may not be there when you come back,” Maxwell says.

But resist impulse buys, even if the product is on sale. “A sale on an item you need is wonderful,” Galak says. “A sale on an item you don’t need is useless.”

Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.