Discount Stores Offer More (and Less) Than You Bargain For

To compare the experiences and products, I paid a visit to my neighborhood’s low-budget shopping trifecta — Save-a-Lot, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree — on a recent weeknight.

Nov 14, 2012 at 9:56 am

In my neighborhood, we don’t have chain grocery stores. The main supermarket is a former IGA that was bought and converted into a store with limited options, high prices and, apparently, no janitorial services. But they have a liquor store and sell lottery tickets, so they’ll be all right.

Within the same block of that store is a Bermuda Triangle of savings — three “discount variety” shops that sell plenty of off-brand, dirt-cheap items and, if you’re in the right store at the right time, good deals on some name brand stuff. 

To compare the experiences and products, I paid a visit to my neighborhood’s low-budget shopping trifecta — Save-a-Lot, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree — on a recent weeknight. 

Because it’s the most complete “supermarket” of the three, with frozen foods, meats, fruits, dairy and vegetables, I hit the nearly empty Save-a-Lot first. Or, as the sign on the store currently reads, “Av-a-Lot” (they pass the savings from not fixing their store’s sign on to the customer, I suppose). 

The fruits and vegetables seem less-than-fresh, as if Save-a-Lot waits by the dumpster for Kroger’s end-of-the-day food dump. Likewise, the whole meat section looks like that one clearance bin every chain store’s meat aisle has. 

I’ve used Save-a-Lot to buy certain staples. Name brand items are usually a buck or two less than at other stores. But mostly you have to make due with the generics. 

Perhaps to create the illusion of variety, Save-A-Lot brands their different types of exclusive products with different brand names. There’s Kurtz condiments, the Today line (which includes toilet paper, cookies and chocolate chip pancake mix) and a collection of soda flavors like Dr. Pop, Bubba cola and Mountain Holler. 

The staples I can stomach purchasing from Save-a-Lot’s misfit supply include milk, butter, canned beans and veggies, pasta, saltines and tin foil. Items I could never buy there include coffee and, even though a Today toilet paper four-pack is only 89 cents, I have no problem spending a little more for something doesn’t dissolve in your hands while you use it.

Save-a-Lot offers two kinds of “Froot Loops” generics — the store-brand Kiggins’ Fruity Rings ($1.99 per box) and the smaller Today brand Fruity Ringers ($1 per box). 

Next stop is the neighboring Family Dollar, where you can buy much more than food and household items. While still full of off-brands, the store has many more name-brand products. Last year it added a new Family Dollar food line, Family Gourmet. These “gourmet” items range from cookies and crackers to Cheese Whiz 

(sorry, “Snack Cheese”) and salsa. Family Gourmet also has a cereal line — its Froot Loops bootleg is called Fruity Whirls ($2 per box).

Family Dollar is more where I’d go to buy marked-down, name-brand toiletries, toothpaste and other household items. It’s like a no-frills version of a bigger chain’s “MegaStore” — with a toy aisle, a few cheap electronics and a clothing section — only smaller and with a slightly depressing vibe. The clothes look cheaply made but aren’t too hideous. I found a cool T-shirt with Animal from The Muppets on it, decked out in rapper gear (though for $8, I could instead buy enough boxes of Family Gourmet Chicken Flavored Snack Crackers to last me a year).

My final stop is the Dollar Tree, which is my “in-a-pinch” shop for certain last-minute items, like a cheap toy to bring to a birthday party for a kid I barely know or cheap candy to sneak into the movies. One out of every three times I go to Dollar Tree, I hear a customer, usually surrounded by “Everything’s $1” signs, ask a cashier how much something is. 

Unless you were born without taste buds, shopping for food at the Dollar Tree isn’t ideal. Though name brands can be found, dollar stores are heavy on the most obscure generics — I found Loretta brand mac and cheese, Little Debbies knock-offs Mrs. Freshlys and a Froot Loops clone called Fruiti Rings.

Dollar Tree’s inventory includes low-budget housewares, party supplies, giftwrap, cleaning supplies, books, DVDs, seasonal items and toys. If I stop there, inevitably I leave with some kitschy item I can’t resist. A fun game this holiday season would be to have a “White Elephant party” where everyone brings the strangest item they can find at the Dollar Tree. It’s part scavenger hunt, part Dinner for Schmucks. 

For some reason, there are often religious, Catholic-centric products at the Dollar Tree (from Jesus stickers to various kids games to about 50 different editions of the Bible). During my recent visit, along with a snowman Pez knockoff called Klik, I snagged a large chocolate candy cane called “The Legend of the Candy Cane,” which lured me in with its promise of “Sharing in the sweetness of the true meaning of Christmas” and a drawing of a praying shepherd on the box. On the back is a version of the “Jesus Candy Cane poem,” which reminds the buyer that it’s “a gift from God above.” 

See — even God shops at discount stores.

CONTACT MIKE BREEN : [email protected]