4 Surprising Ways Dollar Stores Aren’t Always the Cheapest

Miles and Miles of shelves of no-name stationary products, candles, flowers.
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With inflation still high and the full weight of holiday bills crushing your monthly budget, you might be eyeing your local dollar store — where the prices are believed to be the lowest.

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The problem is that dollar stores aren’t always the cheapest compared to warehouse clubs or even big-box stores. Also, there’s a difference between inexpensive and cheap. Even when dollar stores offer a lower price, the quality is sometimes so poor that it’s more economical to spring for something a little more expensive that you won’t have to replace after just a few uses.

With so many stores changing their prices so frequently, it can be hard to keep track of it all. So, if nothing else, just remember these guidelines the next time you head to your local dollar store, where you might actually spend more for something that’s not as good

Batteries That Don’t Last Are No Bargain

According to Kiplinger, dollar stores are notorious for selling carbon-zinc batteries that die much faster than alkaline batteries. Although they’re suitable only for “low-drain” applications like clock radios and remote controls, it’s not unusual to see misleading language like “heavy duty” on the packaging.

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“While shopping for batteries at a warehouse club like Costco may provide the very best value, even big-box stores will be a better buy than buying batteries from a dollar store,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.

“Often, the brands are subpar at dollar stores and prices are higher than what you can find elsewhere. Yes, a four-pack of no-name AAs will cost you $1.25 at stores like Dollar Tree, but at Target, you can get a 10-pack of the store brand up & up batteries for $3.69. If you do opt to buy more, you can find things like a 48-count of Kirkland Signature AA batteries at Costco for $18.99 or a 40-count package of Duracell AAs for $20.99. In either case, you may match the per-battery price of the dollar stores, but you’ll be getting a quality brand versus one that could be dead on arrival,” she added.

To Best Care for Your Skin, Get Your Skin Care Products Elsewhere

Your skin is your body’s largest and most exposed organ — and as a rule of thumb, most things you apply to it shouldn’t come from a dollar store. 

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“While you don’t have to spend a fortune on skin care, you also don’t want to take the super cheap way out,” said Ramhold. “For example, dollar stores may have expired products on the shelf, which means they could’ve lost their efficacy at best or could cause irritation or other skin issues at worst.”

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Ramhold said the reason is that dollar stores tend to have low turnover on cosmetics and similar items, which end up languishing on the shelf. She recommends drugstore brands or house brands at stores like Target instead. 

“This is especially true for products like sunscreen, where you’ll want to make sure it can provide you with the protection you need,” she said. “For instance, a 4-oz bottle of SPF 30 sunscreen at Dollar Tree is $1.25. Meanwhile, at Walmart, you can get a twin pack of Equate spray sunscreen SPF 50 for around $8, or a 16oz bottle of Equate SPF 50 sunscreen lotion for the same price. Considering you’re supposed to use about one ounce of sunscreen each time, not only are the prices and brands available at Walmart better, but they’re also providing more uses.”

Household Cleaning Supplies Cost More Per Unit

When it comes to cleaning products, efficacy and expiration dates aren’t the reason to avoid the dollar store — you can simply find the same or better in other stores for less. 

“Dollar stores typically have smaller containers of these items, but the unit price tends to be worse than what you’ll find at stores like Walmart,” said Ramhold. “Even if you opt for name brands, you can still typically find a better deal elsewhere. For example, you may find a 9.5-ounce container of Pine-Sol at Dollar Tree for $1.25, which works out to $0.13 per ounce or so, but if you shop at Walmart, you can find Pine-Sol for as little as 7.6 cents per ounce.” 

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Dairy Products Are Usually More Expensive and Rarely as Fresh

A big-box store’s dairy aisle is more likely to have fresh products at low prices than your neighborhood dollar store.

“Not only are they usually more expensive, but because of low turnover, they may [expire] sooner so they’ll have an even shorter shelf life than what you might think,” said Ramhold. “Even so, the cost tends to be more expensive at dollar stores than at stores like Walmart. For example, a gallon of whole milk may cost around $3.77 at Walmart, but at some dollar stores, you could expect to pay at least $4.15, if not more.”

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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