It costs just a dollar. What a deal! Even the Goliath of retailing, Walmart has added a $1 Bargain Shopping area in their stores, and you can't walk into a Target without passing the $1 specials right at the front door. Even families with incomes that allow them to shop at the best stores are opting to cruise the aisles of the local dollar store.

Dollar stores are a bargain hunters dream. Or are they? In their lust to grab a deal, many shoppers fail to realize dollar stores aren't always the bargain they seem. In fact, some big-box retailers can actually be a better buy both in quality and in price.

Is It Really $1?
There are a lot of really great deals to be found at dollar stores, but you have to search for them. If you look, you'll discover that not all dollar stores are equal. There are some where every item is truly $1 or less, there is the 99 cents store where the cost is 99 cents and then there are other dollar store retailers where items can be as high as $10.
To get the best deals at any dollar store you should determine the items you are shopping for and plan accordingly -- make a list, scour the ads in the paper and call to see if they accept coupons.

Here are a few of the best buys to be found at dollar stores:

Disposable Items
Paper plates, napkins, party decorations and greeting cards can be found at significant savings. Dollar stores have an abundance of these items in many themes and they are $1 or less. If you're buying items for a child's birthday party, graduation party or any other "get-together" where you need paper products, the dollar store is going to have your best value.

Seasonal Items
These are another great deal. If you need holiday cards, decorations or ornaments, particularly for a school or office party, shop here. They have a good assortment of traditional holiday items for most major holidays. Don't, however, expect them to hold up over one or two seasons, and don't expect to find anything unique. The seasonal items for sale here will be very traditional (think pumpkins, Santa and the Easter Bunny).

Surprisingly the dollar store is an inexpensive store to purchase a pregnancy test. At larger retailers these tests can run $7 to $12. At the dollar store they are $1 and they have the same testing kit as the ones sold at drugstores.

Kitchen Ware
One of the best bargains that you truly do get great value for at the dollar stores are kitchen items. Rubber spatulas, serving tongs, glassware and most kitchen gadgets can be purchased here for 50 to 90% less than at Walmart or Target. Whether you are buying supplies for a dorm, your first apartment or replacing those that are worn out, the dollar store is the place to get them at a great price and at a decent quality.

Children's books are a great buy at dollar stores. You can buy an assortment of easy readers, coloring books and activity books for 50 cents to $1 each. Sometimes they will even bundle them so you can get several for $1. They also occasionally have young adult books and novels, though the selection isn't always great.

Other Items
Other bargains are paintbrushes and paint trays, masking tape, duct tape and surprisingly, garden seeds. Unless it's a special paintbrush, many of us throw them away after one use. It's far better to throw away a paint brush that cost $1 than a $5.99 paintbrush from a large retailer.

If you look, you can also find great deals on plastic storage tubs, but you do have to look. Many times these items are cheaper when they are on sale at Walmart, and you must carefully look at the quality of the plastic. Some storage tubs from the dollar store simply don't hold up to even moderate use.

Changing Shopping Habits
There's no doubt there are bargains to be found at dollar stores, and according to Britt Beemer, Chairman and Founder of America's Research Group, these stores have grown in sales, taking "20 to 25% of annual sales from other retail categories."

The customer base is changing as well. Originally, dollar stores tended to serve lower-income customers, but with the stagnant economy upper-income and even affluent customers are now shopping there. In response, dollar stores have been adding more merchandise like freezers and coolers to offer more grocery items, they are staying open later and they are improving their storefronts, creating a more inviting store.

It's Cheaper at the Big-Box Stores
While all of these are great incentives to step inside a dollar store, the bottom line that will bring consumers back is price. Often, better deals can be found at larger retailers, particularly when they have sales and when they accept coupons. That's when prices can then be significantly better than a dollar store.

Cheaper is not always better and you will actually save money by spending a bit more. Purchasing quality clothing, brand name food products, batteries, electronics and toys will save you both in dollars and in safety.

Buyer Beware
Consumer Reports warn against purchasing medications and vitamins at dollar stores, citing these items might not contain the same ingredients as the name-brands. Sometimes they are out of date, and they often don't list the country where it was manufactured. This can be a concern, as some countries do not adhere to the food and pharmaceutical regulations of the United States.

They also recommend that you don't purchase electrical cords at dollar stores as many of them are not UL approved (there was a recent recall on these). Do not purchase toys, particularly those for infants as many toys on dollar store shelves contain lead and other ingredients that could be harmful.

Toothpaste is another item that you should purchase at a larger retailer with name brand products. The FDA issued a warning about toothpaste from China (found mostly at dollar stores), saying it was "found to be contaminated with diethulene glucol."

Food is another item you should consider carefully before purchasing. Many food items found on dollar store shelves are from "unregulated" countries, meaning they may not be of the same quality as name brand products.

The Bottom Line
Dollar stores are a great place to save some serious money, but you must be an astute shopper. As the old adage says: "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Comparison shop for not only price, but quality. Paying a few more dollars for a premium product that will give you years of use will save you more money than a cheaper item that won't be around very long. If you have any doubts about a product, don't purchase it. That advice should be used in every store you shop.

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