The almighty dollar store

You can’t help but feel rich when everything goes for a buck

BUCKING THE SYSTEM Silver Dollar employee Sarah Pierce holds an armful—about five bucks’ worth—of soap and cereal, two big sellers at the dollar store.

BUCKING THE SYSTEM Silver Dollar employee Sarah Pierce holds an armful—about five bucks’ worth—of soap and cereal, two big sellers at the dollar store.

Photo By Tom Angel

Knock it off:
One type of retail transgression that often goes curiously ignored at discount stores is the multi-billion-dollar issue of trademark and copyright piracy. Because owners of intellectual-property rights are on their own when it comes to enforcing copyright law, even the mighty Disney, whose famous Mickey Mouse is featured on various products in various incarnations ("Funny Mouse” is probably the most blatant impersonation), seems powerless in the face of the sheer tonnage of bargain merchandise being moved at the thousands of dollar and discount stores in the United States.

As anyone who shops at one of the four Chico dollar stores knows, they immediately give the feeling that the crumpled wad of bills one carries is a princely sum capable of buying vast quantities of toys, tools, stationery, gifts and knickknacks, all emblazoned with some obviously foreign brand name like Lucky Chew pencils or Sad Song shoe polish rags.

But a trip to the dollar store is much more than a shopping experience. It’s a surrealist vacation in miniature—a pilgrimage to a rainbow-colored fantasy land of ultra-cheap merchandise, temptingly tacky art, and the kind of downright weird stuff you’d expect to find only in some obscure Communist backwater.

With USA Today reporting that half of all Americans shop at dollar stores, it should come as no surprise that these ultra-discount shops—the logical extension of that uniquely American tradition of the five-and-dime—are moving into Chico shopping strips all over town.

Photo By Tom Angel

Seeing everyday stuff like snack foods, cleaning products and laundry detergent on sale for $1, you might expect the dollar stores to be crawling with young slacker types on a lark and immigrant families trying to stretch a buck—and often, you’d be right. But it’s not just college kids and the working poor snapping up cheap products from Mexico and China.

Annie Clouse, assistant supervisor at the Silver Dollar on East Avenue, says most of her customers are solidly middle class and are looking to buy inexpensive and unusual gifts (as many are no doubt aware, the dollar store is the perfect place to pick up Secret Santa items for coworkers) or simply unable to resist the bizarre appeal of, say, an astrology-themed magnetic thermos cup.

“We get all types of people, all income levels,” Clouse said, adding that many of her customers are regulars. “They love it. A lot times they’ll check here for stuff before going to the grocery store.”

Clouse’s dollar store also has a “gift shop” section where many of the pricier—and some of the more outlandish—items are sold, most for more than the not-so-obligatory-after-all price of a buck. Fiberoptic angel statues are the big sellers here, but if you visit, don’t forget to seek out the LED-lit, metal-framed Last Supper scene, a favorite with the I’m-so-bored-with-the-local-thrift-stores set. Many people bring friends to the store just to bear witness to the blinking electric icon of faith, said Silver Dollar employee Sarah Pierce, who actually bought one not too long ago for a friend.

Photo By Tom Angel

“I love working here,” Pierce said. “It’s really entertaining, and there’s always new stuff.”

Sadly, the Last Supper scene is a gift shop item and so is exempted from the $1 rule. It goes for a whopping $100.

Other customers—ones who probably don’t want you to know they shop at dollar stores—are the entrepreneurs who make their living by buying low at the dollar store and selling high at other stores or markets in town. Pierce has seen customers who have bought tons of trinkets like candleholders and wind chimes, added small touches like ribbons, and sold them at huge markups—up to $20 each for an item that originally cost $1—at the local farmers’ market. Because dollar stores make their money on volume, they welcome these kinds of customers.

Even with plenty of competition, and even in a recession, the dollar stores in Chico are cleaning up. Wonder how much money can actually be made from stores that sell such strange merchandise at such a miniscule markup? How about $1.9 billion in 2001 alone? That’s the net annual sales figure touted by the largest of the dollar store chains, Dollar Tree Inc., based in Chesapeake, Va., which stated in its corporate report that sales had grown by 17.7 percent in that year, and that it hoped to add 300 stores to their almost 2,000 existing ones.

Photo By Tom Angel

Of course, it’s all fun and games until some kid chokes on or is blinded by an inferior product. With all the cheaply made foreign products being sold at these places, it should come as no surprise that product recalls are fairly common. Dollar Tree alone complied voluntarily with four nationwide recalls in 2002, for items such as paperweights that can leak petroleum distillates and stove-burner drip pans that catch on fire.

The stores that sell such products are rarely held liable, as long as they comply with the recall, reports Ken Giles, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Recall Division. The commission instead traces the product back to the manufacturer, who may be subject to fines or other penalties. Though many unsafe products from foreign countries are caught at the border, Giles said it would be unfair to brand any certain country or type of retail outlet as being a major recall offender.

“We had 300 recalls last year,” he said. “I can’t say it’s out of proportion with the economy.”

While a lot of dollar stores are part of corporate chains, there’s no reason why anybody with at least some capital couldn’t start one. One company out of Las Vegas, Allied Systems Inc., has been helping individuals across the country start dollar stores for 10 years now. Allied Vice President Dan Margles said a 1,000-square-foot store costs about $65,000 to set up and stock. After that, he said, it’s all up to the owner to make it a success. One owner Margles knows of in Atlanta started with one store in 1998 and now owns close to 30 stores.

Does the world really need any more dollar stores? Maybe not. But as long as the price remains right, the allure of consuming cheap, funny, often disposable and sometimes even useful products will continue to draw customers to the almighty dollar store.