MONEY online shopping

WATCH: Kickstarter Raises a Record $11 Million…for a Drink Cooler

The Coolest Cooler comes loaded with USB chargers, a cutting board and a Bluetooth speaker. It'll even cool your food and drinks!

MONEY Odd Spending

7 Crazy New Products You Can Buy to Spoil Your Pet

BEETHOVEN'S 2ND, Beethoven and Missy, 1993
Dating services can coordinate matches for you--and your pets. Universal—courtesy Everett Collection

Pet dating services? Dog selfies? "Pre-pups?" The world of pampering pets has hit new heights. Like: outer space. Literally.

In recent years, pet owners have been tempted—perhaps guilted—into treating their beloved dogs and cats to products and services that run the gamut from $350 doggie strollers to pet tattoos, luxury doghouses , and gourmet pet cuisine. And how can anyone forget about the fitness-tracking dog collar and the Grumpy Cat-endorsed line of bottled coffee? (The latter was created for human consumption, natch.)

At some point, it would seem like pet marketers simply must run out of every dog-gone idea under the sun. But based on American pet spending—a total of $56 billion last year, and forecasts call for $60 billion in 2014—for entrepreneurial players in the pet economy, the best time to roll out new pet-related products and services is always right meow. Here, in celebration of National Dog Day on Tuesday, are some of the latest options to trot onto the scene.

Personal Trainers for Dogs
Crain’s New York recently reported on some of the latest ways New Yorkers are giving their dogs the very best, including organic artisanal food and the hiring of specialized dog trainers. Not simply traditional trainers who will do the basics like teach a dog to sit, but ones who will run pooches throughout a calorie-burning workout like personal trainers do with humans. Other trainers give dogs swimming and Frisbee-catching lessons, or teach them tricks like taking their own selfies with an iPad. (Warning: Once your dog knows this one, your iPad will bear traces of a wet nose. But the resulting images are probably worth it.)

In-Home Pet Suites
Home builders such as Standard Pacific Homes now offer optional in-home pet suites as part of new construction designs. “The optional pet suite can be customized with a pet shower and removable shower head, built-in cabinetry and other conveniences,” a brochure for one design in a residential community in southern California explains. Pet suites add an average of $8,000 to a home, but more extravagant ones, with flat-screen TVs and a pet door that opens up to a dog run, can go up to $35,000, the Los Angeles Times noted.

Pet Memorial Space Flights
At long last, you can send your deceased pet’s remains into space thanks to Celestis Pets, “the world’s first pet memorial spaceflight service.” The company, which already offers a similar service for human remains, expanded into the pet market this summer. Services range from the basic “Earth Flight,” in which only a symbolic portion of the pet’s cremated remains are sent skyward before returning to earth, to the top-of-the-line “Voyager,” which for $12,500 takes the remains into the deepest space for eternity.

Pet Dating Services
The Associated Press covered the rise of pet-friendly dating services such as PetsDating.com and YouMustLoveDogsDating.com, where like-minded pet-loving singles are supposed to find matches. Love isn’t necessarily the goal, though; PetsDating, “an online community for pet owners who want their pet to enjoy a long, healthy, and fulfilling life in the company of another pet,” has pets rather than human hookups as the primary focus. People who meet through the site could wind up dating, but they also might simply be looking for doggie play dates or someone (and some dog) to go for a walk in the park with. Yet another service, DateMyPet.com, is indeed all about making love matches—within one’s own species, to clear up any confusion about the name.

Dog Toiletries
Companies like Fort Lauderdale’s Synergy Labs are “tapping into the worldwide trend to humanize pets,” according to the Sun Sentinel. The company sells a kennel’s worth of atypical pet merchandise, including a lineup of Pooch Scents (basically: perfume for dogs, with scents like POSH, Rain Fresh, and STUD), high-end organic shampoos and conditioners, and a forthcoming one-of-a-kind toothbrush “designed with three heads to clean the inside and outside of the mouth and the pet’s face at the same time.”

Pet Annuities
A survey by the Securian Financial Group found that nearly 20% of pet owners have made financial plans for the wellbeing of their pets if the owners pass away. Of those, 13% had bought annuities that named the pet’s caregiver as the beneficiary.

Pet Prenups
The rise of couples battling over custody of their pets when they break up—seen this summer with the split of Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, who wants to get their three dogs in the divorce settlement—has raised the profile of “pre-pups.” Like it sounds, the pre-pup is part of a prenuptial agreement that specifies who gets ownership of a pet in the case of a breakup. More attorneys are specializing in pet issues including custody disputes, and apparently there’s quite a need. Data cited by the Daily Mail indicates that one-fifth of separating couples with pets said figuring out who gets the dog was just as stressful as determining who would get custody of the children. Yahoo News reported that without a pet prenup, pets tend to be viewed in the eyes of the court as furniture or any other possession owned by the couple, and bidding wars often determine which party ultimately gets to keep the pooch.

MONEY deals

Labor Day Sale Prices Are Here—a Week Before Labor Day Weekend

Banana Republic 50% off promotion
Jin Lee—Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a brutally competitive back-to-school season for retailers, clothing stores like Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch have busted out extra-early clearance sales to the tune of 40% and 50% off everything.

Check out some of the impressive sales taking place right now:

Abercrombie & Fitch: 40% off everything in stores and on the web;

American Eagle: extra 50% off items already on clearance;

Ann Taylor: 50% off a broad range of merchandise;

Banana Republic: 40% off your entire purchase online with the code BRGET40, or $50 off when you spend at least $100 in stores;

Gap: 30% off for everyone (use code AUGUST), or 40% if you have a Gap credit card (code: $40STYLE) now through August 24, plus $25 in Gap Cash for every $50 you spend now through September 1.

If you didn’t know any better, you might have assumed that these big, across-the-board discounts are for Labor Day sales, or for post-back-to-school clearance sales. Heck, 40% off everything has more or less been the standard markdown level to get shoppers to bite on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, renowned as the best sales days of the year.

So why are retailers pushing such hefty discounts at such a seemingly odd time? One reason is that right now is an especially competitive, arguably desperate moment for apparel stores in particular. Iconic retailers like Target, Walmart, and Sears have been struggling mightily of late, and a wide range of clothing stores are trying to cope with consumers’ shifting fashion (and shrinking household budgets) that have brought about the need for deals like $10 jeans.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), household spending on clothes during the back-to-school period is basically flat compared with last year. Shoppers said they planned on spending $231.30 on clothes this season, versus $230.85 a year ago. What’s more, more parents seem to be taking the slacker approach to back-to-school shopping, procrastinating on purchases rather than prudently completing shopping lists long before school starts. As of August 12, an NRF poll indicates, 24% of families hadn’t done any back-to-school shopping yet, compared with 21% at the same time last year. Though fashionistas would disagree, trendy clothing is less of an essential for the start of the school year—kids need notebooks and markers more than new outfits—so it’s a safe assumption that procrastinators have been shying away in particular from clothing purchases, especially if they’ve been avoiding back-to-school shopping because of a tight household budget.

All of these factors add up to a situation in which stores simply haven’t been able to convince shoppers to buy enough clothing yet during the end-of-summer, back-to-school period. They could have waited to drop their big discounts on Labor Day Weekend, but because stores are constantly trying to beat competitors to the punch nowadays, sales tend to start earlier and last longer than ever—hence back-to-school deals beginning in June and Christmas advertising starting just after Labor Day.

Speaking of the winter holidays, they’re a major reason why retailers are being especially aggressive in clearing out summer and fall inventory right now. The November–December period is by far the most important time of year for all of the retailers mentioned above, and to make the most of it, stores want to start with a clean slate (and cleaned-out stores) as early as possible, to prep for the busy months ahead.

In fact, the world’s largest retailer already announced the launching of a holiday season initiative two weeks before Labor Day. “At Walmart, we never stop thinking about the holidays,” a post from Walmart’s Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer, stated in mid-August. And yes, he was referring to the winter holidays: Starting around Black Friday, Walmart plans to have all of its store registers open during peak shopping times, according to a new Checkout Promise introduced by Mac Naughton.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why stores are resorting to big, broad markdowns at a seemingly strange time. But before you bite, bear in mind that next week, the sales will probably be even better on whatever merchandise hasn’t already been snatched up. The folks at dealnews anticipate that many stores will offer deeply discounted clothing during Labor Day clearance sales, sometimes with markdowns or 70% or even 80% off.

MORE: Why Parents Should Procrastinate on Back-to-School Purchases

MONEY Shopping

WATCH: Wal-Mart Cuts iPhone 5c Price to 97 Cents

Major retailers are slashing prices on Apple’s iPhone ahead of a rumored new iPhone announcement in September.

MONEY groceries

WATCH: Market Basket is Still a Mess

Market Basket's situation keeps getting worse with many employees off the job in protest, customers angry at shopping disruptions and some suppliers ending their relationship with the grocery store.

MONEY

Why Nobody Calls Target ‘Tarjhay’ Anymore

140820_EM_OneStopShop_2
Getty

After another disappointing earnings report this week for Target, it's time to take stock of what has happened to the cheap-chic retail industry darling that everybody used to call "Tarjhay."

Target cut its profit outlook on Wednesday, while reporting poor earnings and continued sluggish sales in the latest quarter. While the news was more or less expected—Target recently hired a new CEO to address its well-known struggles in the marketplace—things look as grim as ever for the all-purpose retailer that few shoppers refer to as the fancier-sounding “Tarjhay” anymore.

“Target has given investors ZERO reason to be encouraged that a global turnaround is secretly emerging,” Brian Sozzi of Belus Capital Advisors wrote, responding to Target’s latest earnings report—and rating Target stock as a sell. “At the domestic store level, merchandising issues persist, including weak assortments in apparel (notably the hot category of athletic apparel) and the over-buying of seasonal categories in light of persistent negative traffic.”

“You have seen a brand that has lost its way,” Steve Beck, founder of the management consulting firm cg42, said of Target in early August, after it was revealed Target had lost $148 million as a result of last year’s holiday season credit card data breach, according to MarketWatch. “And the end result is poor performance.”

So how exactly did Target lose its way? Why don’t shoppers flock to Target for cheap chic fashion in the numbers they used to? Target itself deserves much of the blame, but the economy and big shifts in the retail landscape also factor in.

Part of the explanation is that one-stop shopping, which not long ago was perhaps the best sales pitch in retail, is not the draw it used to be. The concept of one-stop shopping made sense for retailers on several levels. All-purpose stores like Walmart and Target expanded grocery sections in order to offer more convenience and efficiency to harried, time-crunched consumers. Many dollar store chains followed the same playbook, pumping up selections of groceries and other household staples to give shoppers reason to pop in multiple times a week, rather than every so often when they needed cheap party favors or random craft supplies.

The idea is that shoppers will come in specifically for low prices on certain items, and perhaps—in the case of Target, especially—for exclusive designer goods that can’t be found elsewhere, and that while they’re in the store, they’d also pile up impulse buys and needed household products alike into their shopping carts. This is all possible when almost everything under the sun, from spicy mustard to designer end tables, fishing poles to kids’ winter coats, is available under one store roof.

Yet at Walmart supercenters, which represent the ultimate in one-stop shopping in America, foot traffic and sales are on the decline. Sales and customer visits have likewise been falling at Target, and even smaller, nimbler dollar stores have seen growth go flat, prompting the need for a dollar store merger that’s yet to be determined.

Many factors have affected sales recently at these outlets, notably the decrease in food stamps to America’s poor, who therefore have less money to spend at Walmart and dollar stores, as well as the monumental data breach at Target, which damaged the company’s reputation among shoppers. Stagnant wages among American workers, and general uncertainty in the economy have hurt sales too. But part of the equation is that, in the age of Amazon Prime, one-click buying, and a range of online grocery shopping services that eliminate the need to browse store aisles, the appeal of one-stop shopping has diminished substantially. If saving time is a primary concern for consumers, there are far better, far quicker ways to run errands and gather essentials than hitting a gargantuan Target or Walmart location out at the mall or by the side of the highway.

When Target was the media and shopper darling nicknamed “Tarjhay” for its chic fashions and dependable household staples, the perception was that it truly delivered on its slogan “Expect more, pay less.” Target’s big problem is that the motto has rung hollow for quite some time. “The dimension of ‘expect more’ is gone,” said Amy Koo, a senior analyst at Kantar Retail. “As for ‘pay less,” well, pay less than what? Folks are savvier today. They’ll order at Amazon. It’s easy to find products that are much cheaper online, and it’s much more convenient to a shopper’s needs.”

Similarly, Walmart’s slogan (“Save money, live better”) is less resonant with shoppers today because if they were truly living better, they wouldn’t be shopping at Walmart—at least not in the physical stores themselves. Today’s consumers expect more than ever, and they want to live better by burdening themselves as infrequently as possible with chores such as shopping for groceries and other boring basics. Essentially, they expect more than even the biggest supercenter can provide—which will inevitably pale in comparison to what shoppers can find in terms of pricing and selection online.

While Walmart has mostly competed on price to keep sales from drifting away to its online and brick-and-mortar rivals, and it’s been extremely difficult to fend off dollar stores, Amazon, and the rest, Target became a phenomenon back in the day by having a pretty good track record at picking styles and designs that suited shoppers’ tastes at the time. Then the Great Recession destroyed household disposable income streams, and even cheap chic wasn’t cheap enough. There were some big mistakes—developing an online presence very late in the game, the epic debacle that was the high-price Target-Neiman Marcus partnership, a largely unsuccessful expansion into Canada—but none has been bigger or more destructive for sales in the post-recession era than Target’s concentrated appeal to a core group of wealthier free-spending shoppers, said Kantar’s Koo.

“Target is saying: We don’t care about the low-income shopper, we’re going to focus on the people who can spend more money,” said Koo. As a result, the styles and prices at Target were “suddenly not in line with many shoppers. It’s no longer tailored to meet the mass audience.”

Lately, Target has been undergoing some soul searching. One Target location in Minnesota was turned into a test store for trying out new products and services to get the reactions of customers. A new CEO, Brian Cornell, was hired, and his first promise was to listen and learn rather than make any sudden dramatic moves. This week, the company announced some stores would stay open until midnight on a trial basis through the holiday season to woo night owls and people working odd hours.

Extending store hours will help Target make the case that it’s more convenient, and more in tune with what shoppers need today. It just appears unlikely that any of Target’s tweaks will prove to be game changers and turn things around quickly for the struggling retailer. It also appears pretty much an impossibility that the “Tarjhay” nickname will resurface anytime soon.

MONEY Autos

Check Out This Revolutionary Car Buying Advice—Then Disregard It

steering wheel with clock in it
Valerie Loiseleux—Getty Images

Consumers have been told that everything car-buying experts have been advising about the best time to buy a new car is wrong. So what's the right approach now?

Earlier this summer, the car-buying research site TrueCar offered some stunning insights concerning car prices throughout the year. The takeaway from the numbers seemed to throw the conventional wisdom of when to buy a new automobile on its head. August, TrueCar data revealed, “has historically shown to have the lowest average transaction price of the year at $29,296.” After analyzing data from 2009 to 2013, the site concluded that consumers in August paid $716 less for a new car compared to all other months and declared that August may very well be “the best time of the year to buy a new car.”

What’s more, the numbers showed that Sunday is “typically the best day of the week to buy a new car,” with transaction prices that were $1,402 lower than the daily average, and that “the first two days of the month are the best time to shop for a new car,” because prices on those days represented an “average $390 in savings over the remaining days of the month.”

If you’ve ever read an article on the best time to buy a car, you’ll know that these tips basically spit in the face of the consumer expert consensus on the matter. For instance, a fairly boilerplate post from Kelley Blue Book offers this advice to shoppers who want to get the best prices on cars:

• Buy around the last day of the month — dealers have monthly sales quotas
• Buy at the end of the year — some dealers will clear out inventory for tax reasons

Meanwhile, analysts at Edmunds.com are regularly quoted saying things like, “December has become one of the best times of the year to buy a new car,” and virtually every article on car buying mentions advice along the lines of: “As you might guess, the end of the month is often a good time to buy a car, particularly if salespeople are trying to meet their quotas or qualify for a monthly bonus.”

What gives? Should we throw out the conventional wisdom on when to buy a car? Well, yes, says TrueCar CEO Scott Painter. “When you look at the real data, you see that you’re almost always better off doing the opposite of what conventional wisdom tells you to do,” Painter told CBS Moneywatch recently. “Unfortunately, much of the conventional wisdom is just wrong.”

The truth, however, is a lot more complicated than what Painter would have us believe. August may be a great time to buy certain kinds of cars, and the first couple of days of the month could be an opportune time to seal the deal. Then again, depending on the buyer and car model in question, those times might not be ideal to get the best price.

Here’s why, despite TrueCar’s seemingly groundbreaking analysis, the conventional wisdom on when to buy a car still holds up—even as TrueCar isn’t 100% wrong.

Let’s start with the business about the first couple days of the month. A representative for TrueCar replied to our inquiry about this issue by explaining via email, “the end of car sales month goes a few days into the next calendar month. Dealers are more eager to sell cars at the end of a ‘sales month’ to reach manufacturer incentive program sales targets for the month.”

In other words, car sales finalized on the first or second day of September generally count for August in terms of the purposes of the dealer’s and salesperson’s tally. So it’s somewhat of a matter of semantics: Yes, you still want to follow the conventional advice and buy at the end of the month—only be sure it’s the end of the dealership’s sales month, rather than the regular old calendar.

Now let’s move on to TrueCar’s data regarding average transaction prices, which are lowest in August ($29,296) and peak in December ($31,146), and what this actually means for buyers. On the one hand, sure, August tends to be a good time to buy because car dealerships are eager to get rid of leftovers from the previous model year and make space for the new, more in demand (and higher priced) models. On the other hand, it’s much too simple to state that the deepest discounts on leftover models take place in August and August alone. “The model-year changeover is another opportunity for a great time to buy,” said Kelley Blue Book analyst Tim Fleming, “but this has generally taken place more in the September-October timeframe rather than August.”

What’s more, the average vehicle transaction price in any month depends a lot on what vehicles people tend to be buying during that month. Fleming explained that December has the highest transaction prices because it’s an especially big month for sales of luxury cars and SUVs. It goes without saying that cars in these auto categories cost more than the average sedan, so when many of them are purchased, the average transaction price increases.

A closer look at the TrueCar data shows that the average incentive (a.k.a. dealership discount) is higher in months such as December ($2,686) and March ($2,746) than it is in August ($2,619), even as August has the lowest average transaction price. How could this be? It’s because the average sticker price of vehicles purchased in August tends to be lower than other months. To a large degree, cars cost less in August because people are buying cars that are cheaper to begin with. It’s not because cars are being discounted by a larger amount.

“Anyone generating an average of transaction prices would be remiss not to consider the mix of models being sold,” the car-buying experts at Edmunds.com said via statement, in response to an inquiry about TrueCar’s advice. “Edmunds.com’s data suggests that historically March has actually had some of the lowest average transaction prices over the past few years, and this is largely due to the types of vehicles that sold during the month.”

Finally, what about buying on Sunday? Let’s defer to some older insights from TrueCar on that matter. “Weekdays are better than weekends,” TrueCar advised car shoppers in 2010. “The fewer people on the lot, the more likely the dealer is willing to make a favorable deal.” TrueCar has also gone on record stating that one particular Sunday—Easter Sunday—is the absolute worst day of in the whole calendar year to get a good deal on a new car.

MONEY Saving

Why Parents Should Procrastinate on Back-to-School Shopping

School supplies arranged in clock face formation
iStock

If you've been a slacker thus far in rounding up your kid's back-to-school supplies, there's good reason to keep on procrastinating.

The simple reason why this is so is that very soon, almost every store will be putting kids’ scissors, notebooks, glue, pencils, and other back-to-school merchandise on clearance. For that matter, clothing marketed for the back-to-school season will be deeply discounted starting around Labor Day as well if not sooner, in order to make space for the next big seasons for retailers—Halloween and Christmas.

Don’t tell your kids about this, especially not at the start of the school year when homework and exams are about to become painful realities, but the truth is that sometimes it pays to sit back and do nothing. Many consumers are utilizing this “strategy” this summer, though it’s unclear whether they’re doing so consciously—or, more likely, lazily and obliviously. The Integer Group estimated that more than half of shoppers wait until one to three weeks before school starts to buy school supplies, and that 36% of consumers won’t do any back-to-school shopping at all, up from 31% who skipped back-to-school purchases last year.

The most prudent, responsible, cost-conscious approach for back-to-school shopping is for a parent to dutifully browse for bargains throughout the summer and scoop them up when they’re optimal. Back-to-school promotions started even before the previous school year ended, and Staples, Walmart, dollar stores, and other retailers have periodically rolled out 1¢ folders, 25¢ rulers and protractors, and other loss-leader sales in order to rev up business. For that matter, truly savvy shoppers understand that kids tend to need more or less the same supplies every fall, so they strategically snatch up pencils, notebooks, and whatnot whenever they’re at rock-bottom prices throughout the year.

The ship has sailed on the chance to do the prudent thing and buy items whenever the optimal price appears. That approach is too time-consuming and requires too much attention for the average parent anyway. This late in the game, there are two options left: 1) Turn into a whirling dervish and hit one store to buy everything your student needs in the few days before school starts; or 2) make do with what you have for the first day of school, then complete your kids’ list sometime around Labor Day.

The first option is the more responsible one, of course, and ensures that your child will have all of the required supplies on time. Yet the Integer study found that price is the most important element in back-to-school purchases for roughly three-quarters of consumers, and with this first approach, shoppers will wind up paying more than is necessary for many school staples.

That leaves us with the second (slacker) option, which is attractive not only because you can do nothing for a little while longer, but also because of a bonus in the form of saving a bundle of money. By the time Labor Day arrives, the majority of what you need to buy will likely be marked down for clearance sales. You’ll get the cheaper prices on glue, notebooks, and such without having to shop around, monitor Sunday circulars, or hit multiple stores. All in all, you’ll save time, effort, and money, with the main tradeoff being that your kid might get dirty looks from the teacher if he shows up on the first day of school with an empty backpack—or perhaps no backpack.

“Like most seasonal items, the longer you wait to buy back-to-school items, the better your chances are of scoring a significant discount,” said Lindsay Sakraida, features director at the deal-tracking site dealnews.com. Normally, clearance aisles are a hodgepodge of random, undesirable leftovers, but this isn’t the case for basics like pens, notebooks, and calculators, which are more or less immune to trends and seasonality, said Sakraida. “While sorting through the clearance section can sometimes yield limited options, it’s less of an issue with school supplies, making this an even more appealing option for cash-strapped back-to-schoolers.”

She suggested starting to look for big back-to-school markdowns a few days before Labor Day weekend. Around that time a year ago, Staples and Office Max cut prices dramatically on many items, sometimes with discounts of more than 75%. Other retailers will surely be posting printable coupons good for 20% or 25% your entire purchase over the holiday weekend, said Sakraida.

And prices will only drop from there as retailers try to clear shelf space to prep for the next season’s goods. In terms of fall clothing and school supplies alike, “look for the deals to get pretty aggressive by mid-September,” NPD retail analyst Marshal Cohen told the Wall Street Journal.

Even if your kids are fully outfitted for this school year by then, it might be wise to hit the clearance section and round up some supplies for next fall. You know prices will be cheap. And perhaps by planning ahead you’ll show your children that even the laziest procrastinators can change their ways and become more responsible.

More Back-to-School advice:
Would You Spend $60 for Your Kid’s Lunchbox?
Parents Worry More About Back-to-School Shopping Than Bullying
4 Best Credit Cards for College Students

MONEY Shopping

Why Dollar General and Dollar Tree Both Want to Buy Family Dollar

An unusual kind of price war is rocking the world of dollar stores, with two suitors seeking to buy out the same competitor. As you might imagine, a lot of dollars are involved in the competition—nearly $10 billion.

Three weeks ago, when Dollar Tree bid to buy Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, it seemed like more or less a done deal. On Monday, however, the biggest player in dollar stores, Dollar General, offered its own bid for Family Dollar, reportedly in the neighborhood of $9.7 billion. One way or another, it looks like one giant dollar store company will emerge after one of these bids is accepted.

But why are these companies involved in this unusual breed of “price war”? And what does it say about the low end of retail that either of these colossal mergers would make sense?

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. Ironically, though, the merger may be a sign that the era of rampant dollar store growth is plateauing, even while many household finances remain pinched and dollar store shopping continues to be popular.

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. A few weeks ago, 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 why both Dollar Tree and Dollar General want to buy Family Dollar. In today’s ultra-competitive marketplace, a merger represents their best chance to grow, or at least survive.

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