Dollar stores can be great places to pick up cheap wares, but sometimes you get what you pay for. Rather than a bargain, you could end up with something worthless — or, even worse, something dangerous.
Following are things we think you should avoid buying at a dollar store.
1. Pet food
My dollar store sells 12-ounce bags of cat food and 16-ounce bags of dog food for $1. But if you are going for the cheapest food possible, you’re better off with a bigger bag from the supermarket. The store-brand dog food in my area is priced at $11.29 for a 16-pound bag. That’s just under 71 cents a pound, and cheaper than the dollar store. Cat food prices are similar.
However, price isn’t the only reason to skip dollar-store pet food. Unless you have the tiniest of dogs, 16 ounces of food won’t last long. For convenience’s sake, buy a bigger bag elsewhere — such as at one of the retailers we cite in “8 Ways to Save Money on Pet Food.”
2. Oven mitts
While washcloths and dish towels are a best buy at the dollar store, steer clear of the oven mitts. Made with thinner material, these may be a burn just waiting to happen.
If you don’t expect to use a tool much, you might be able to make do with the low-quality options you’re likely to find at a dollar store.
Otherwise, your best bet is to buy quality tools. Look for trusted brand names and make sure your purchase can be returned if it is faulty.
4. Garbage bags
Oven mitts aren’t the only things that are thin at the dollar store. Off-brand garbage bags may be made of flimsy plastic that could rip on the way out the door. They may work for carrying light items to the curb, but for kitchen waste and heavier trash, invest in better bags from the supermarket or your wholesale club.
5. School supplies
Once we pass the midpoint of summer, office supply stores and big-box retailers start practically giving away school supplies to get shoppers in the door. These deeply discounted items can be brand names too, rather than generic, dollar-store equivalents that often don’t work as well.
Bottom line: Skip the dollar store for school supplies and wait for the sales at other retailers.
Dollar Tree sells massive 2.75-liter bottles of store-brand soda for a buck. That sounds like a deal, but the reviews online are mixed. So, try one bottle before stocking your fridge.
Brand-name soda may also be available at the dollar store, but these often come in smaller sizes. If you are particular to a specific brand, you may be better off stocking up when there is a deal at the supermarket. My local store usually has deep discounts on 2-liter bottles around events such as the Super Bowl and Fourth of July. Prices generally work out to less than $1 each.
7. Over-the-counter medicine
In theory, all over-the-counter medications must meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards. But the reality is that some stores have received products from foreign manufacturers that are potentially unsafe.
For instance, in 2019, the FDA sent a warning letter to Dollar Tree that said the following:
“The warning letters sent to the contract manufacturers used by Dollar Tree show a pattern of serious violations of the law, such as not testing raw materials or finished drugs for pathogens and quality.”
Just as over-the-counter medicines sold at dollar stores can be of questionable quality, so too can vitamins. Past testing at Consumer Reports has shown that off-brand vitamins sold at some discount stores didn’t contain the level of nutrients claimed on the label.
Are you really buying a gift for someone at the dollar store? Party favors and items for white-elephant exchanges are one thing, but getting a dollar-store gift for someone you love seems, um, tacky.
If you truly can’t afford to spend more than a couple of bucks, get a greeting card from the dollar store, write a heartfelt note and maybe slip in an instant lottery ticket if your state sells them and your recipient isn’t opposed to gambling.
10. Shampoo and beauty products
Opinions seem to be mixed on dollar-store shampoo and beauty products, but they get a thumbs down from us. Not because of any safety concern, but because they often don’t provide great value.
Dollar stores may sell brand-name products, although some skeptical shoppers do not believe these products to be the same as the full-priced versions sold elsewhere.
That aside, we find that many dollar stores stock itty-bitty bottles compared with what you get elsewhere. So, you may not be paying a lot, but you’re not getting a lot either. You might find a better value by buying beauty products elsewhere and taking advantage of coupons and deals.
11. Paper goods
You’re welcome to try dollar-store toilet paper, but we don’t recommend it. Often having fewer fibers than other brands, no-name paper can make for a less than ideal outcome. We won’t elaborate.
As for the brand-name toilet paper, tissues and paper towels at dollar stores, you may find the same problem we discovered with shampoo. Small sizes and fewer sheets mean the dollar store price isn’t much of a bargain.
Try checking your warehouse club or otherwise buying in bulk to get the best quality for the lowest per-unit price. Paper goods are one of the bargains in “10 Best Buys at Warehouse Clubs.”
12. Electrical cords and other electrical devices
If you would rather not reduce your home to smoldering embers, we suggest steering clear of cords and electrical devices from dollar stores.
That may sound dramatic, but dollar stores don’t have a great track record of quality control when it comes to cords and electronics.
As far back as 1999, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warned about faulty, low-priced, made-in-China power strips, extension cords and surge protectors sold by discount stores and small retailers.
The problem, to be blunt, is that dollar-store toys are trash.
As a result, safety is an issue. Dollar-store toys are often subject to recalls because they contain lead or have parts that can break off and present a choking hazard, for example. You can search for recalls on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website.
Beyond that, we suggest that you’re better off paying a little more and steering clear of the tears and frustration.
We’re talking about stuff that breaks if you look at it wrong. The wheels fall off, the batteries won’t work or your 3-year-old will snap it in two before you’ve even hit the parking lot. Then, you’ll be left a buck or two poorer with a broken toy and an upset child.
14. Canned and boxed foods
Most dollar stores carry a selection of canned, boxed and bagged foods that may include many brand names. Some stores may even have a grocery section complete with meat and produce.
While the dollar pricing may seem like a bargain, you could also find many of these items on sale at your grocery store for less. In particular, grocery supercenters such as Walmart seem to win the price war for canned and boxed foods.
15. Kitchen knives
Quality concerns also get kitchen knives placed on the do-not-buy list.
Dollar-store knives can be flimsy and dull. Both are bad when you’re trying to cut your food and not your fingers.
In a pinch, dollar-store batteries will work just fine, but don’t expect them to work like the brand names.
Rhett Allain, an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, put Dollar General batteries to the test against Duracell and Energizer products in 2012. He discovered the dollar-store batteries contained significantly less energy and their voltage drops off quickly.
If they’re super cheap, they still may be worth the tradeoff. You’ll need to decide for yourself.
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