Do Dollar Stores Always Offer The Best Deal?

The allure of the dollar store for some shoppers is the idea that they will save money compared to what they would spend going to another retailer. But that may not always be the case, especially if you’re buying larger sizes of some products.

The Houston Chronicle’s Frugal Confessions blog did some quick comparison shopping on a list of 15 items at three different stores — a 99 cent store, a Family Dollar, and unnamed non-dollar store retailer.

Covering everything from beer to cat food to dish soap to aluminum foil, the test found that the non-dollar store actually had the lowest unit prices on one out of three items.

For example, while you only pay $1.00 for Palmolive at the 99 cent store, you’re only buying an 8 oz. bottle, meaning you pay $.125/oz. But the non-dollar store’s 25 oz. bottle at $2.64 has a unit price of only $.106/oz.

Same goes for Reynolds aluminum foil. That $1.00 at the 99 cent store only gets you 18 square feet. The non-dollar store will cost more than three times that ($3.29) but provides you with 75 square feet.

Oddly enough, Family Dollar’s roll of Reynolds offered more foil (45 square feet) but had a higher unit price ($.07/sq. ft) than either the 99 cent store ($.055) or the non-dollar store ($.044).

In fact, Family Dollar only had one item — dry cat food — with a lower unit price than the other stores.

While this study is admittedly not very scientific, it is a reminder that unit price — especially for non-perishable goods — should be kept in mind when looking for the best value.

Do Dollar Stores Offer Better Cost Per Unit than Non-Dollar Stores? [Chron.com]

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  1. Coffee says:

    “99-cent store” is a bit of a misnomer, judging by those prices.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      The full legal name of the company is: The Around 99 cents Store.

      • gman863 says:

        The actual name of the store is “99 Cents Only”.

        Although they now carry a few higher priced items, they’re extremly honest by keeping these items on a seperate aisle and clearly tagging them.

    • themicah says:

      All over NYC there are “99 cents or less” stores that have had the word “less” covered up on their signs with the word “more”. I’ve never understood why anyone would shop at a “99 cents or more” store.

  2. Blueskylaw says:

    I know so many people that don’t know how to shop and compare by comparing unit prices.
    The “dollar” stores sell smaller units of name brand products for a dollar or so and you think you’re getting a good deal when actually you’re not. If you also think that a few pennies per ounce difference is no big deal, remember that BILLIONS of dollars are made from those few pennies and that money comes straight from your wallet.

    • Such an Interesting Monster says:

      But many times it depends upon what you’re buying. If you only need a small amount of a product or food then buying a larger size for more money even if the unit cost is lower ultimately winds up wasting money.

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        true enough. i do get some camping supplies at the dollar store when i want them in undersized containers.

    • maxamus2 says:

      LOL, I saw a poster on slickdeals trying to compare the price of toilet paper between stores. Their post went something like this “at Costco the 36 roll is $17.81″ but I don’t know how to get a cost per roll.

      They seriously couldn’t do simple division.

  3. Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

    “In fact, Family Dollar only had one item — dry cat food — with a lower unit price than the other stores.”

    I noticed this a few weeks ago when I dropped into a Family Dollar store to pick up a few cheap bird feeders – I had just bought some Purina Cat Chow at a supermarket and was gobsmacked to see it for $1.00 less per bag at Family Dollar. I WAS GOBSMACKED, I TELL YOU!!

  4. Platypi {Redacted} says:

    Interesting that you mention foil. We bought some at a dollar store on our way to go camping, and I would be amazed if that was actually aluminum foil! It was thin and didn’t behave like normal foil (it wouldn’t hold its shape at all, didn’t really seal anything, and seemed to be less resistant to heat). So not only could the prices not be better, often the quality of the products is extremely suspect.

    • 2 Replies says:

      Did the box say “wax paper” on it? ;-p

      • Platypi {Redacted} says:

        LOL. “Honey, this foil just keeps melting onto the pan! And this hobo stew isn’t working out at ALL! Why is it WHITE?”

        No, it was silvery and everything, just felt WRONG.

        • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

          I think I’ve used the same stuff. It’s also so thin that it’s incredibly difficult to unroll it without tearing. It’s like gold leaf.

        • Princess Beech loves a warm cup of treason every morning says:

          Just make sure it’s not writhing and ejaculating spermatophores, because that clearly isn’t aluminum foil.

          That, however, explains why it’s dirt cheap.

    • alana0j says:

      I had a quite different experience from my local Dollar Tree. I got the off-brand aluminum foil and I’ve used it to cover food, to cover my baking sheet and tonight made mini-pies after forming said foil into a tiny pie pan.

  5. AllanG54 says:

    The only thing I buy at dollar stores is greeting cards and the occasional box of movie size candy.

    • themicah says:

      Mylar balloons!

    • pamelad says:

      Picture frames! I buy 4 x 6 and 5 x 7 photo frames at the dollar stores. They’re not museum quality, but I really can’t see any difference in these frames compared to the $5 to $12 ones at drugstores or discount stores. I do look at them somewhat carefully before purchasing, as some are obviously defective. The ones I have bought have been so nice looking, of such nice materials and workmanship that I feel guilty. But I guess the workers in China who made them probably make about the same amount of money as the workers who made the ones destined for Target. Don’t know how a picture frame ends up in a dollar store.

      Campbell’s soup! It’s $.99 and about $1.50 at the grocery store. Check the expiration date, but I’ve never seen an outdated can for sale locally.

      Post-It Notes! I did get a cheapo bunch of Post-It-like notepads from a dollar store. After learning that lesson, I check to make sure they’re genuine 3M.

  6. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Wouldn’t a more accurate title be to pose the question Do Dollar Stores EVER Offer The Best Deal?

  7. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    dollar tree: i don’t necessarily find the best prices but i do often find items there i can’t find other places easily. comparison between items i can get other places shows that most of the time the shampoo and cleaning products are actually very overpriced.

    dollar general: larger cans of a few flavors of campbell’s soup for about 30% less than target and about 50% less than the grocery store and cheap vitamins

    family dollar: a cesspool of filthy shelves, dusty products and rude employees, so i stopped shopping there.

    • Jules Noctambule says:

      A very good summary of Family Dollar, I think.

    • jeb says:

      The Family Dollar closed up shop here. Dollar General is still going strong.

      I also much prefer Dollar General, and their cookies are amazing.

    • jesusofcool says:

      Family Dollar in my area is a cesspool of expensive junk that as far as I can tell from my area, prays on low income neighborhoods with little access to big box stores. Personally though, I love Dollar Tree. They’re great for party supplies, greeting cards/notecards, coloring books for the kids, and movie theater candy. You have to be selective though and avoid the sketchy/poor quality stuff that you don’t want to be that way. I stay away from the food and cleaning supplies. Occasionally I find bargains in the toiletries – brand name toothbrushes (stay away from the toothpaste!) and Sally Hansen clear coat!

  8. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    It’s been my experience that dollar stores tend to crop up in areas which are predominately lower income and underserved by grocery stores or other retail.

    Compared to Walmart, Kroger, or Target, their prices aren’t very good. In practice (in my neighborhood), those stores aren’t accessible by public transportation and aren’t within walking distance, so they aren’t the competition.

    But when compared against CVS, 7/11, or the corner Minute-Mart, they’re significantly more competitive.

    • AustinTXProgrammer says:

      They opened a dollar tree right next to a super target not far from where I live. I don’t think our area’s demographics are well suited and they are NEVER busy. It is a good place to get throw away ear buds and the like.

    • shepd says:

      Thinking about dollar stores around here, they are almost all near or even right beside grocery stores and department stores. The only exception I can think of, out of about a dozen of them, is in an old mall that’s half abandoned that used to have a grocery store.

  9. Back to waiting, but I did get a cute dragon ear cuff says:

    Beer at the 99 cent store?

  10. 2 Replies says:

    Ugh. No.
    NO ONE ever ALWAYS has the best deals.
    If they say they do, they’re blowing smoke up your ass.

  11. brinks says:

    Dollar stores are great for organizing stuff, like plastic bins and tray. They’re always a few bucks more at the big box stores. Throw-away party and holiday decorations are usually a better deal, too. Name-brand makeup, while way more than a dollar, is at least a buck cheaper than the big box places, but who knows how old it is or if it’s tainted with more lead than usual.

  12. chatterboxwriting says:

    When I think of a dollar store (or 99 cent store), I think of a store that has every item for $1. Family Dollar is not one of those stores, so I’m not surprised at the results of this. Dollar Tree is one of my favorite stores, but only when it comes time to buy gift wrap or bows or something little. The toiletries are overpriced ($1 for VO5 shampoo that sells for 77 cents a bottle elsewhere) and I would not buy most food there. Additionally, they do not accept coupons, so even if the regular price is usually higher elsewhere, I can get it cheaper when it is on sale and/or I have a coupon.

    • Kisses4Katie says:

      Yes, I forgot that Dollar Tree is the best for gift wrap and cards. Seriously, I cannot believe some people will pay 6 bucks for a card.

  13. Sorta Kinda Lucky Soul says:

    If you watch carefully you can find $5.00 off coupons in newspaper fliers (or printable online) for Family Dollar and Dollar General. That, combined with manuf. coupons, can yield some pretty good deals. The last time they had these I got two, and my husband and I both used them in conjunction with some diaper coupons and did really well. Also, depending on available coupons, you can also do well with laundry and paper products, especially with coupons over 1.00 in value since the vast majority of stores won’t double them.

    • JF says:

      But depending on where you live you may not have to use the coupon at that store. My local grocery accepts competitor “store” coupons. They have to be form local competitors, but it is still a good deal and I can shop at the store that has a better unit price.

  14. Outrun1986 says:

    It depends on what you buy there. Paper goods and disposables are usually a good deal. The grocery store charges 2x what dollar tree does and for disposables used around the house the quality does not matter. The party store down the street from dollar tree charges about 20x more for the exact same items, if I have a party I am getting my decorations and stuff from dollar tree. Also if you just need a small amount of something and don’t want to buy the larger supermarket size because you will never use it all. There is only one member of our family who can take ibuprofen so we get it at the dollar tree, since if we bought a larger bottle it would expire before we could use it all.

    Also family dollar and dollar general are not dollar stores, a dollar store is where every item is $1. These stores have different price points.

  15. ovalseven says:

    Please don’t feed your pets food from the dollar store. Don’t they deserve a little better than that?

    • cameronl says:

      when that little b-tard stops peeing on my sofa and eating the neighbors’ cats, he’ll get the good stuff. Until then, it’s dollar store dingo chow.

    • madanthony says:

      I was in an odd-lot store and noticed cat food and thought “I’d never feed my cat food that I bought here”. Then I realized that was kind of absurd, since I’d bought people food there and eaten it myself.

  16. AldisCabango says:

    However when I need something quick I can walk across the street or drive a block or 2 and get it at the dollor store has opposed to driving a couple miles to go to a big box store. Adding up my time and auto expenses, that can of spray starch or dish detergent is about the same price if not cheaper.

  17. NewsMuncher says:

    I would also factor in how much you’re actually using of the product. If you want to spend less (period) on an item and you’re not using it all (it’s a one-time thing), then the lower package cost is better. If it’s something you buy, use up, then go out and buy more, then lower unit price ($/oz, etc) is better. Then there’s the cost of buying cheap crap that you have to throw away, use twice as much of or compensate for that just makes it cheap crap (like Platypi’s Al foil).

  18. JJFIII says:

    The unit price is fine, except you fail to take into account the time value of money. If I buy a smaller quantity of something it is usually because the time it takes me to go through it is ridiculously long. Salt would be a great example. I could buy a 25 pound bag of salt for far less than a 16 ounce container. Even the 16 ounce container has been around for years. I rarely use salt, so why pay the extra for a per unit savings.
    I buy the size of the item that I can reasonable expect to go through it in a short time. I do not like to be a storage facility for things I don’t use.

  19. donjumpsuit says:

    If anyone ever adds ‘sugar free single’s’ (a single packet to flavor a 16.9mL bottle of water) then the dollar store is the place to stock up. I have seen the supermarkets charge as much as $3.99 for a pack of 8 or 10 of these. The dollar tree has them for $1 each. Easily a steal.

    http://www.dollartree.com/kitchen-tableware/spices-snacks-pretzels-chips-cookies/bottled-water-gatorade-tea-energy-drinks/Hawaiian-Punch-Wild-Purple-Smash-Singles-to-Go-8-ct-Boxes/213c336c341p300691/index.pro?method=search

    • speaky2k says:

      I was going to post this same thing. The Wyler’s ones are good too, I love the Cool Raspberry. Dollar Tree is also good for bar soap. I needed some since my stock of hotel bars was running low (I haven’t gone on a work trip for about 8 months) so I while I was at Target, Wal-Mart, and my local grocery store I looked but didn’t buy, they were around $1 per bar for most brands in 4-6 bar packs, some were higher. I found I could get a two pack of most of these same bars for $1 at Dollar Tree.

  20. Costner says:

    I have found some things at the dollar store are good deals…. other times they are overpriced.

    Items that I often buy from the dollar store and that are a good value include: Gift bags, napkins, disposable cutlery, books, and coloring / activity books.

    However when it comes to things like candles… their deals aren’t all that great. Also much of their food is generic brand in odd sizes that is reaching expiration date, so it isn’t always a great deal.

    That said, on a recent trip to my local Dollar Tree store they had a huge display of Sarah Palin’s book (Going Rogue or whatever it is called). They probably had over 100 copes of the book, but I must admit even at $1 for the hardcover I still felt it was way overpriced.

  21. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    These aren’t everything-for-a-dollar stores but are a cross between convenience stores and small department stores. They fill in the geographic gaps between larger Walmarts, Kmarts, & Targets.

    I find better deals, atmosphere, and selection at Dollar General and Dollar Tree than Family Dollar. My local Dollar Tree now has an aisle long freezer section and expanded canned/packaged goods section.

  22. gman863 says:

    99 Cents Only is a wonderful store. You just have to pay attention to what you’re buying.

    About 90% of what they offer is typical dollar store creep. If you’re willing to spend a few minutes looking for the other 10% and visiting every few weeks, you may strike gold.

    Here are a few of the items I’ve stocked up on there in the past year:

    *Gillette deorderant, 3 ounce ($3.00 at grocery) – 99 cents.

    *Jumbo Lipton tea bags ($3) – 99 cents

    * Libby jumbo iced tea glasses ($4) – 99 cents

    * 1350″ inches invisible tape (= about $6 at Office Depot for the same # of inches) – 99 cents.

  23. do-it-myself says:

    Unit prices are the secret to getting more bang for the buck. Next time you buy toilet paper, watch out! Those 12 Double Rolls have the same square footage as the 9 MEGA rolls. Yet the Mega rolls cost at LEAST a dollar more. Don’t fall into the trap!

  24. Serenefengshui says:

    Dollar Stores are great for pregnancy tests. Only a buck, compared to at least $6-15 at the drugstore & grocery store.

  25. Rick Sphinx says:

    No, got to know your prices. Got to know unit prices. Got to know quality of what your buying, is the savings worth it. Cleaning sprays are not worth the cheap price if you have to use more to do the same job with a quality product. Use your head.

  26. josephpr says:

    For many shoppers, the weekly budget is a concern. Yes, the jumbo pack of paper towels, or the large jug of window cleaner is a better deal on the basis of unit cost, but if you don’t have the ability to lay out the money for a six month supply of window cleaner, you will simply buy the less economical, but affordable small size. Having the ability to invest in, transport and store larger quantities is why it often cheaper to shop in an expensive suburb versus a more economically challenged area.

    When these stores became comment, I read or saw a story about how they were able to get all the items to fit the price model; they basically would have the manufacturer package especially to get to the desired price point.

  27. Kisses4Katie says:

    I go to Dollar General for Oreos and Beefaroni. They are cheaper there, even tho the oreos are a smaller size than most grocers (I don’t eat a whole bunch of them, but I hate generic oreos and I don’t like the packs that ‘seal’ themselves, going stale). But those places pay pathetically, I made 7.50 an hour as a manager. That was like 2 years ago.

  28. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    We have a store here called “Nothing over $1″ (Canada), and last year it changed its name to “Nothing over $1.25″ and raised the price of everything by that 25%. The owners bought big round “.25″ stickers they put on the signs.

    I stopped shopping there, and I can’t help but wonder if there is any OTHER store that could get away with a 25% across the board price increase without notice/uproar.

  29. Darkneuro says:

    I buy frames, kitchen towels & gadgets, cups/plates/silverware for parties, glassware and serving dishes at Dollar Tree.