Dollar stores are luring a lot more consumers these days.
While it's no surprise these discount retailers gained popularity during the economic downturn, their rock-bottom prices aren't the only reason for their still growing appeal: Dollar store chains have undergone major makeovers in recent years, sprucing up their dingy digs and adding more compelling merchandise.
"At the start of the recession, they decided they didn't want to be recession-dependent retailers, but that they would become mainstream," Dave Marcotte, senior vice president of market research and retail consultancy Kantar Retail, tells DailyFinance.
The strategy appears to have paid off as the chains, which have long been patronized by the cash-strapped, have managed to capture more business from higher-income shoppers.
For example, Dollar General (DG), which just announced plans to open 625 stores this year, noted recently that its fastest growing customer segment is shoppers who earn more than $70,000 a year. And Dollar Tree (DLTR) was called out by Kantar Retail as one of the country's fast-growing retailers in a December report.
Here's why the dollar chains, including top players Dollar General and Family Dollar (FDO), have become some of the hottest places to shop.
Once synonymous with generic goods of dubious quality, dollar stores have made a big push in the past few years to upgrade their product mix with the addition of well-known brands -- from Tide laundry detergent to Kellogg's cereals.
"The addition of national brands brings consistency to the merchandise mix and appeals to brand-conscious consumers," Deborah Weinswig, a retail analyst with Citi, tells DailyFinance.
They've also sprinkled their store shelves with items that have a "wow" factor and can spark an emotional purchase -- what the retail industry calls "treasure hunt" goods -- which has created "a sense of excitement in dollar stores," Weinswig says.
And in their selections of general merchandise, these chains have increasingly moved away from "really cheap knockoff stuff" towards better-quality clothing and home goods. They've also standardized their inventory so that shoppers can expect more consistent product offerings year round.
About two years ago, Family Dollar launched Family Chef, a proprietary line of housewares, including cookware and kitchen gadgets, that marked a major upgrade from its prior "very spotty" offerings, Marcotte says.
Meanwhile, Dollar General added in more national brands like Hanes to its apparel mix, he says. Compelling Grocery, Drug Store Alternative
Also in recent years, the dollar chains improved their food and consumables offerings, which has boosted foot traffic in the stores, Weinswig says. "They've added coolers, quick prep, and ready-to-eat food."
The dollar chains are also giving drugstores a run for their money by carrying much of the same health and beauty care products as a Walgreens (WAG) or a CVS (CVS), for example -- but at lower prices, Marcotte says. Family Dollar, for example, is emphasizing those deal with in-store signs that urge shoppers to compare its prices to drugstore prices, he says.
The upgrades are poised to "have the greatest impact on the food and drug retailers, as the dollar stores' convenience and competitive pricing gives consumers another option for making convenient purchases," according to Weinswig's Citi report, "Dollar Stores Well Positioned for Success."
Dollar chains have also given their stores facelifts.
"They've made the stores much easier to shop and simpler to navigate," Marcotte says. Today, many of them "are clean, attractive and well lit."
Convenience Fits with New Shopping Patterns
More consumers are forgoing massive shopping trips where they load up on household goods that will last them a month -- a shift that has been a boon for the dollar chains, Peter J. Keith, senior research analyst for hardline retail and consumer products for Piper Jaffray, tells DailyFinance.
"In terms of the dollar store popularity, I would say the greatest reason is convenience," he says. "Consumers are now preferring to make smaller purchases on a more frequent, as needed basis. This type of shopping lends itself well to dollar stores where you can park right by the front door and get in and out in five minutes. Conversely, a trip to Walmart (WMT) might take 30 minutes with the large parking lot and large store to navigate."
Meanwhile, some dollar chains are becoming even more bargain-conscious in their pricing due to the nation's lingering economic malaise.
Dollar General, for one, has expanded its offerings of $1 priced items in response to "the high unemployment levels among customers without a high school diploma," says Weinswig's report.
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Why Dollar Stores Are Hotter Than Ever (Even Among the Rich)
Japanese retailer Uniqlo has set out to make utilitarian clothing -- with features like milk protein softening fibers -- cool, whether you're 16 or 60.
Uniqlo's concept is sort of like an Apple Store (AAPL) for fashion; it showcases affordable apparel in a modernist setting, with items like $12.90 camisoles featuring Heattech, its exclusive heat-retaining and moisture-resistant technology.
Showcasing high-performance, stylish clothing in a sleek setting is how Uniqlo hopes to "revolutionize" mass retailing in the U.S., Shin Odake, CEO of Uniqlo USA, told DailyFinance during a tour of its new 64,000-square foot outlet in New York City.
"Think American Apparel, but done a little better." That describes Joe Fresh, according to Craig Johnson, CEO of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners. The Canadian retailer is expanding in the U.S., and is on a mission to "solve the family's fashion needs," with an affordable range of "accessible, of the moment style," for women, men and children, as well as beauty products, says the Joe Fresh Facebook page.
Adds Joe Feldman, managing director of retail consultancy Telsey Advisory Group: "Joe Fresh is the new kid on the block in the fast-fashion space. It has a clean look and attractive pricing."
Watch out H&M, Mango and Zara: The British are coming. U.K. retailer Topshop is quietly making a mark on the U.S. retail scene, bringing its twist on fast-fashion to the States.
The retailer is "an upscale -- but not luxury -- fashion-driven business which imports tremendous fashion and shoe merchandise from the U.K.," Gilbert Harrison, founder and chairman of Financo, the boutique investment firm, tells DailyFinance. Now the chain is expanding in the U.S. and Canada.
The retailer opened in-store boutiques in 14 of Nordstrom's department stores in September.
But while Topshop's merchandise is edgy in the fast-fashion tradition, "It appeals to a broader swath of customers than either Zara or Mango, and is a little higher priced, but better quality, than H&M," for example, Johnson says.
Unlike the mother chain that sells clothing exclusively under the Gap brand, Piperlime features apparel, shoes, handbags and accessories from a host of fashion brands, ranging from 7 For All Mankind and Calvin Klein, to Anne Klein, BCBG, Badgley Mischka and Kenneth Cole to Naturalizer and Nine West.
Piperlime also plays the role of your personal stylist. The site features guest editors like stylist Rachel Zoe, who dispense fashion advice and offer their picks of hot trends and products available on the site.
The retailer expanded with the addition of men's clothing this fall.
Charming Charlie sells affordably priced earrings, necklaces, bracelets, handbags, scarves and belts for women of all ages in a variety of looks, from vintage, modern, glamorous and global fare to bohemian and punk rocker-inspired styles. Named "hot retailer of the year" by the International Council of Shopping Centers in 2010, it's reminiscent of Claire's, the teen accessories chain, but for a broader audience, Johnson says. And it's "very hot and expanding right now."
Chris Burch opened his first C. Wonder store in New York City's trendy Soho neighborhood this year, selling upscale clothing, jewelry, handbags, accessories and home decor "at astonishing values," according the retailer's web site.
C. Wonder, which is now expanding to mall locations, features classically designed fashion and accessories in some unexpected colors, like chartreuse and ecru. Merchandise is showcased in a store designed to delight the senses, featuring ever-changing floor and window displays.
While C. Wonder "may look a bit like Tory Burch, only with a green versus orange motif, [but it's] more than a bit less expensive," Johnson says.