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Clark Howard: Let the buyer beware at dollar stores

By Clark Howard, HLN
Clark Howard says there are some deals to be had at dollar stores, but consumers have to be picky.
Clark Howard says there are some deals to be had at dollar stores, but consumers have to be picky.
  • Recession has boosted spending at dollar stores
  • Cotton rounds, gift wrap, birthday candles among the best deals
  • Not all dollar stores are equal; some have more expensive items
  • Some knockoff products from dollar stores failed tests against brand names

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Want to boost your spending power? Try giving your wallet a break by shopping at a dollar store. Americans have embraced the four leading chains -- Dollar General, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and the 99¢ Only store -- in droves during the recession.

This year, Dollar General's sales were up almost 10 percent quarter-over-quarter, and they're opening 450 new stores, according to The New York Times. Dollar Tree, meanwhile, planned to open 235 new stores this year. And Family Dollar's early 2009 numbers pointed to sales being up 6.5 percent year-over-year.

But despite the booming sales, Consumer Reports' Money Adviser has taken a close look at this hot retail segment and found that not everything is a deal.

Before I tell you what they say to stock up on and what to pass on, I want to clarify something. There are important distinctions to note among the chains. Dollar General and Family Dollar both price the majority of their items at $1, but they also offer some merchandise at higher price points. Dollar Tree and the 99¢ Only chain are the only true dollar stores where everything is $1, with no exceptions.

So what did Consumer Reports find? Cotton rounds, gift wrap, birthday candles, paper bags, composition notebooks, plastic cups, security envelopes, napkins, foam plates and tissue paper are among the best deals.

Yet they advised against buying jewelry (too much lead content), electrical products (possibly fake UL labels), medication (expired products) and vitamins (probably not to be from reputable sellers) at any dollar stores.

Video: Buying 10 items for $10

Now, I've routinely bought medication like ibuprofen at dollar stores and have not found it to be past expiration date. Of course, some would argue that I can get a better deal on ibuprofen at a warehouse club. But unless you're in constant pain, who can use all those 12 million pills in the bulk container before they expire?!

The research that Consumer Reports did reminded me of a similar report in Good Housekeeping several years ago. At that time, the women's magazine compared four knockoff products from the dollar stores versus four brand name products purchased elsewhere.

The products included generic glass cleaner, body lotion, dishwashing liquid and detergent. The brand name products were Windex, Lubriderm, Dawn and Tide, and they proved to better than their generic counterparts.

For example, a teaspoon of Dawn washed 19 dishes, while a teaspoon of the dollar brand washed only six! As for the detergent, the dollar brand failed to wash out a mustard stain that Tide did.

So the message is, let the buyer beware at the dollar stores. Certainly, there are some deals to be had, but you've got to be picky.