Dollar store shopping: bargain or marketing ploy?

According to a recent Nielsen survey, savvy recessionistas now shop at dollar stores. Wanting to be savvy, I journeyed to the nearest Dollar Tree, which makes me sound like a character in a fairy tale:

"And there, Marco the Scribe found a magnificent tree and it was blooming money..."

My initial impression was to be impressed at how much you could buy for a buck: a shower curtain, a dog dish, safety goggles, a soap dispenser. "How can these stores stay in business?" I thought.

Upon further inspection -- and a comparison shop at Albertsons -- I began to see the answer: most of the merchandise is Stuff That's Too Small and You Don't Want Anyway.

For instance, I performed a highly scientific taste test of Home Style Select potato chips verus Lays, discovering that the former was like bad sex: limp, oily and over too soon. A truly bad Lay.

And when I did find a name brand, I discovered that the reduced cost came from the reduced size. For instance, there's no value in buying an 8-ounce bottle of Pace Picante Sauce for a dollar when you can get 16-ounces elsewhere for $2.

WalletPop did some earlier comparisons here, which show the benefits of buying in bulk at discounters like Costco.

Still, I decided to see if I could prepare an entire meal from the Dollar Tree, so I bought a can of Del Monte Meat Sauce, supplemented it with a jar each of marinated mushrooms and red peppers, then served it over Perfect Blend spaghetti. Dinner for four for $4.

That is, assuming you like bad food. Indeed, both the mushrooms and red peppers represented a new culinary concept--flavorless cuisine--while the texture of the spaghetti brought back fond childhood memories of eating paste. And, while there was no discernible meat in the Del Monte Meat Sauce, the sauce part was, well, sauce.

I did find a few bargains. At the Dollar Tree, you can get four AA batteries for a buck versus eight at Albertson's for $6. That's 25 cents per battery instead of 75. And LA's Totally Awesome Laundry Detergent cleaned my clothes just fine, and I, like, totally love the name.

Finally, I couldn't tell the difference between the rolled wafer cookie Piroulines at the Dollar Tree or Pepperidge Farm's Pirouettes from Albertson's. The Pepperidge Farm are 24 for $3.49 versus 10 for $1, essentially 14 cents per cookie versus 10. Most importantly, the reduced size meant I only ate 10 in one sitting as opposed to the 24 I ordinarily would have.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.

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