Everybody admits to a quirk or two, and mine happens to be a predilection for dollar stores. I love browsing their aisles. I don’t always buy, but I do like to tour them whenever I’m in a new neighborhood, a strange city or, quite simply, an undiscovered shopping center.
Oh, but the wrapping paper and gift bags. The sappy greeting cards. The cheap glass vases and schlocky dinnerware, and the discounted books, and the plastic containers, and the toys that might last a week. Who knew that you could get so much stuff for so little money?
Dollar stores are the perfect place to find bridal shower decorations. Perfect place for pinata stuffers. For school holiday-theme parties. For any celebration that requires a budget and party favors. Even if you’re not particularly creative or a Pinterest addict, you can find all kinds of inspiration in the stores’ aisles.
They’ve become so popular, these merchants of cheap, that heavyweight media offer regular reports on what to purchase and what to avoid. So as not to keep you guessing about the latter: Brand names may have a lower price tag, but that’s only because they come in smaller quantities. I digress, however. Fact is, dollar stores have turned into a regular trending topic. As far back as 2011, when the recovery from the Great Recession was still limping along, the New York Times Magazine did a long piece about these stores, shadowing a woman who wrote a blog called Dollar Store Crafts. It was appropriated headlined, Dollar-Store Economy.
Even at a time when we are told that the economy is galloping full-steam ahead and the job market is blazing its own glory, dollar stores — where they are, who shops in them, and what they represent — remain a media obsession. That’s because, really, who doesn’t love a bargain? Forbes’ website, for instance, has had several pieces on this very American phenomenon, including one last year about dollar stores being the true retail disruptors — a good point, since the two biggest dollar chains have more stores than the six biggest U.S. retailers put together.
Last week, I received a forwarded email from Quartz with fun fact and figures about dollar stores. In 2016, there were 30,496 in the U.S. By 2021, they’re expected to number about 38,000, and this at a time when other retailers are closing their brick-and-mortar assets. I’m not surprised. In my neck of the woods, the dollar store is hopping during the holidays. And even when we’re in between, say, Christmas and Valentine’s, it’s hard to find a parking space. It’s not uncommon to spot a shiny new Beemer or a Lexus in the lot, either.
The concept behind dollar stores isn’t new. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the wondrous bounty of five-and-tens, those G.C. Murphys, Woolworths and McCrorys. No hint of Amazon back then, but you could pretty much find most everything you needed on their shelves. More recently, a new player has muscled in, providing a variation on the theme — Five Below is the “upscale” answer to people who don’t mind spending more than a buck.
But not everyone is a fan. Some shoppers hate the knock-offs and the discontinued products. They claim savings are a mirage because the products are cheap. They’re suspicious of foodstuff and toiletries. And staff service, they complain, is nonexistent.
The naysayers have got it all wrong, though. I’ve been happy with my purchases of Tootsie Rolls, coloring books, school project supplies, kitchen trash receptacles, nail files and a general assortment of tchotchkes. I’m fully aware I’m not shopping at Neiman Marcus and, hence, my expectations are correspondingly modest. It’s a good philosophy of life to have, by the way.
Now that we’ve got that settled, can I show you the foam dice I bought for a buck?