The Phenomenon of Dollar Stores

Have you ever been in desperate need of dish wash soap? Have you ever cared to look for bargains on house shoes? Or have you ever wanted to purchase bathroom products without having to drive around for miles to buy them?

Tadaaa, I am hereby introducing to you, the phenomenon of Dollar Stores! Now to all fellow Americans, disregard this post, as I heard you can find these shops throughout the entire United States. However, the first time I came to New York, I was flabbergasted by the so-called “cheap solutions”: 99ct stores popping up all along Flatbush, big and small, with various products I needed and most I didn’t. During my first move, after I had unpacked all my things, I was stuck in the midst of Brooklyn, and had to urgently buy a few products before making a trip out to the City. A hair dryer was one. Body wash another. Simple things I cannot live without.

My roommate told me to just walk down to Flatbush Avenue (remember, I was living in a different area back then) and to go check out a Dollar Store before taking a train up to Target. Well, so I did, and the first thing I noticed when poking my head around that Flatbush Ave corner was one 99ct store after another. Bargain Hunters, one was called. Great Buyers another. I decided to try my luck with the first one to my right and entered this unimpressive looking shag. Turns out the Dollar Store was a bit bigger than I had thought.

The first thing that came to my mind was to grab some comfy looking house shoes for laughable $2 from the first counter. Then I saw 99ct facial tissues I desperately needed. After finding a suitable hair dryer for less than 20 bucks and some first-class soap I thought I could use, I finally got out of that store, already having purchased things I knew I wouldn’t use. For example a zebra-printed handheld duster, even though we already owned three of these devices. It had just looked too cute!

Gradually I became accustomed to the idea of Dollar Stores and started comparing various items in different stores. Bargain Hunters was good for every-day devices, such as cotton swabs and tissues. Great Buyers seemed to be a better fit for dish wash and cleaning tools. And my first choice for roller blinds was still Ikea, of course, but since Ikea is so far away in Red Hook, I bought some $6 ones from the 99ct store.

So 99ct stores were definitely my spot to go to in the beginning. Then I started to compare prices and saw that a good amount of things was not really cheaper than elsewhere. For example, body soap and shampoo, at least the good stuff, is more economical to purchase at Target. Also, in the long run, I would stick to buying electronic devices from a certified store which has a longer guarantee than one week. My first hair dryer actually lasted pretty long, over a year, but I wouldn’t have had the option to exchange it for a new one after two months in case it had broken down. Target has the nice option to return your goods up to 90 days after purchase, which I really value (still not comparable to that 2-year-warranty German stores give you, but you can’t have it all!). And then I had this problem of wanting to return curtains which looked dead-ugly when I unfolded the package. But of course the Dollar Store does not issue refunds on “used” items (even though I made sure to tell the clerk I had only bought it one hour ago), so I never got my money back but had to buy something else in their store. Just another annoying issue. Clearly, now that I know the rules, I know how to play along.

When I moved to the Slope I already figured that I would have to give up the concept of Dollar Stores, since I thought these to be a part of poorer neighborhoods. How wrong I was! They are all over New York, matter of fact! But the ones where I lived are not owned by Haitian natives or Latin-rooted entrepreneurs. They mostly belong to Asian families who employ their teenage sons and daughters as cashiers or stockers (and some only do this with a sour expression on their face). However, down towards 9th Street you can still find plenty of Latin-owned 99ct stores, who offer a variety of paper party cups and plates and not to forget the obligatory back-to-school notebooks (even off-season). They helped me out when I was in dire need of a knitting kit and some basic screw drivers to fix up my room. As it turns out the screwdrivers wore out after three uses already and didn’t turn the screws tight enough anymore.
And then, one day, I bought a cute pair of flip flops made of bast, thinking they might break down after a few uses. One week passed and they never gave in to my prediction, so I bought another pair, which are still buried in my room somewhere. However, one summer day it started to rain and as I was walking up towards Duane Reade I slipped and almost fell against the glass wall. Puzzled at why I was the only one who had troubles gaining a grip on the cement floor, I tried to walk again and slipped another time. And from there on I was very careful not to fall down the subway stairs by holding on to everything I could. So the 99ct store flip flops might have looked cute at first but they turned out to be some lethal weapons on wet ground. It sorta took out the joy of wearing them after this, as New York weather changes sporadically and I didn’t want to be caught in another deadly rain shower again while wearing them.

Other than a few pitfalls, the Dollar Store is a fun place to be. It is crammed full with many cheap things, which I didn’t even know existed, and the bright colors of their merchandise heighten my mood when I walk in on a gloomy fall or winter day. I sometimes have to catch myself to not buy too many things I already have in abundance I won’t ever use so lately I haven’t really been down to the Dollar Store anymore. I understand that New York is dependent upon all the individually owned shops and they belong to the culture of this city like Sacks on Fifth Avenue.

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10 thoughts on “The Phenomenon of Dollar Stores

  1. I love dollar stores. Everywhere I’ve lived they are usually a chain Dollar Tree, Dollar General, etc. There is always the danger of spending more than you intended just because everything is so cheap, but mostly it’s great. I am with you on soap, electronics, etc. I buy those things elsewhere as the savings isn’t that good. But dish soap, dishwasher detergent, and these antibacterial kitchen wipes are a bargain. One of the ones near us even has some frozen foods that is cheaper than in the supermarket.

    • We don’t have frozen goodies at ours yet, but we do have a candy isle at some and poland spring water which is significantly cheaper to buy than anywhere else (three small bottles for one buck, not bad, eeeh?!).

      • Well that’s cool at least. A $ for 3 is pretty good for individual bottles. If you drink a lot though you may want to look at Walmart if you have one near you. The Walmart brand spring water is like $3.99 for a case of 24.

  2. Once I managed to buy nail scissors in dollar store which broke in two pieces after first time I used them. I can’t say my nails are THAT hard :)))

    • haha Elena, how funny! Their quality is really not the best, agreed! Although we did buy knives there once and they lasted for a good half a year…Must have been the right Dollar Store!

  3. Ahhhh…. dollar stores. Love them. Hate them. Sounds like you have become an expert at the rules and the strategies of shopping in them. Thanks for the post! With no dollar stores here in Europe (as you well know) & no crazy convenient stores open all hours of the day, reading your post gave me a little feeling of home. Though, I only went to said dollar stores when I was in dire need of something – but there always seems a time when you just know… “I need to go to the dollar store for that.” Thanks, again! Enjoyed your post!!

  4. Don’t you have something similar in Germany still? We have pound stores here in the UK, and other variations of that sell really cheap things – you don’t really need!

    • Holly, no, we don’t really have anything resembling this store. It was a very new concept to me and very fascinating! I think I saw something similar in London, but not sure how exactly it compares to the ones in NY…

  5. Dollar Stores are everywhere! The kids love them, Natalie actually bought all of her frames for her picture wall at the dollar store down the street. They sure do sell a lotof funny items there, but like you said, can be great for cleaning products and party supplies. One of the ones we drive by frequently always has a sign “Ground beef $1.oo per pound” we always say that we hope no one buys it!

    • Waaaw, not sure if I’d buy that ground beef, either! I buy photo frames at IKEA, but maybe I should take a closer look the next time I check out our Dollar Store, maybe they have them here, too! 🙂

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