MONEY Shopping

Why We Spend So Many of Our Dollars at Dollar Stores

99 cent sign
joeysworld.com—Alamy

And why the $8.5 billion Dollar Tree–Family Dollar deal is probably a sign that the dollar store's heyday is coming to an end

The dollar store has been one of the great success stories of the recession era, with chains such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General posting record sales figures, broad expansions, and soaring stock prices over the past half-dozen or so years. Now that Dollar Tree is purchasing Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, it appears as if the era of rampant dollar store growth is plateauing, even while many household finances remain pinched and dollar store shopping continues to be popular.

How did we get to the point where such a colossal merger would make sense? Here’s a look back at the recent evolution of the dollar store, with a particular focus on why many shoppers have come to view them as handy neighborhood general stores—and not just for cheap stuff.

The Great Recession destroyed shopper budgets. In the late ’00s, the housing bubble burst, the stock market crashed, and the jobs market took an ugly turn. All of the factors combined meant that the free-spending habits developed by consumers in the preceding years would have to be broken and replaced by new strategies to live cheaply. The much-heralded demise of conspicuous consumption spelled trouble for products like GM’s Hummer, but it also meant boom times for low-price retailers—dollar stores especially.

With little money to spend, especially if they’d cut up their credit cards as many had in a move to a cash-only existence, consumers stretched what few dollars they had at dollar stores. Consequently, dollar stores flourished. Dollar General doubled its store locations in the first decade of the millennium, for instance. According to one study, by 2011 there were more dollar stores than drugstores in the U.S.

Dollar stores pushed one-stop shopping. Shrinking American household budgets helped the rise of dollar stores. So did the broad campaign by dollar stores to push beyond the idea that they were good only for junky throwaway trinkets, off-brand canned goods, and anything else that had grown stale on the shelves of mainstream stores.

Among the goods shoppers started seeing more of at dollar stores are groceries, home decorating items, and even beer and wine. In some cases, dollar store offerings have been celebrated as surprisingly chic: A New York Times columnist wrote about his adventures decorating his apartment with dollar store purchases, while the 99-Cent Chef developed a following based on recipes that use ingredients purchased only at 99¢ Only stores. According to one survey from 2010, 18% of shoppers said that they were buying food and drinks for holiday parties at dollar stores.

Chances are, they were also buying wrapping paper and some stocking stuffers at dollar stores too. And that’s the point. When a shopper can buy fresh bread, produce, a gallon of milk, birthday cards, laundry detergent, shampoo, Christmas presents, and maybe a few bottles of cheap Chardonnay at the dollar store, there’s less need to hit the supermarket, liquor store, drugstore, or big box retailer. Dollar stores have been actively promoting themselves as one-stop shopping options with almost anything you need to buy—and with more locations and a smaller, easier, more manageable layout than, say, the nearest Walmart.

They’re not as cheap as you think. While there are undoubtedly some great bargains at dollar stores, shopping experts also advise against the purchasing of certain items there. Like, say, electronics and pots and pans. If you’re surprised that dollar stores even have such items, bear in mind that oftentimes, not everything in a dollar store is priced at $1. Dollar Tree has stuck to $1 pricing for everything in its stores, but Family Dollar and Dollar General don’t bother abiding by the $1 price rule. Among other items, the Dollar General website lists a Craig Android tablet for $78 more than $1.

Dollar stores employ the age-old strategy of drawing shoppers in with bargains and hoping that they grab some other (non-bargain) goods while they’re at it. A Family Dollar spokesperson told the New York Times columnist mentioned above that low-priced cleaning supplies were “almost like the gateway product” for dollar store shoppers. “It starts with cleaning goods,” he said, “and ends up with a bedspread.”

Or perhaps a tablet, or a bottle of wine—which will also cost more than a buck ($2.99 and up, usually, when available.) Shopping centers have been embracing dollar stores in their slight turn upscale because they’re able to attract slightly better-off clientele. But budget-conscious consumers must be careful: In many cases, dollar stores charger higher prices per unit than what’s to be found at Walmart, Target, or a warehouse club such as Costco. It’s just that dollar stores seem like bargains because the items are low quality or they come in exceptionally small sizes. Just last week, a controversy was stirred up when Dollar General offered a special on diapers in “all counts and sizes” that Walmart and Target failed to match, even though they have price matching policies. Why? Because Walmart and Target offer diapers in far bigger sizes than what’s available at dollar stores.

Speaking of Walmart and Target, they’ve slowly been rolling out a counteroffensive to dollar stores by way of smaller retail locations, often in the densely populated urban hubs where dollar stores are ubiquitous. Supermarkets have entered the battle too, with stores that are half the size of the usual grocery shop. The smaller size means these stores can easily fit in a strip mall or city block, making them a lot more convenient and practical for millions of shoppers.

So now we have a situation in which dollar stores do what Walmart and Target do best by stocking groceries, electronics, and a little bit of everything, and Walmart, Target, and grocery chains do what dollar stores do best by offering small, convenient locations (and more of them) and many bargain-priced goods. The retail lines are blurring. Every player wants to be the convenient, one-stop shopping destination for shoppers, and it has gotten much tougher for a dollar store or any retailer to stand out. When it’s hard to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and it’s hard to grow, it’s probably time to combine with someone in the same boat to help you compete. That’s what seems to be happening with Dollar Tree’s purchase of Family Dollar.

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