Dollar Stores: The One-Stop Shop for Home Decorating?

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Forget about Ethan Allen, or even IKEA. The hottest way to outfit nearly every room in your home is by scouring for treasures at dollar stores.

OK, so maybe that’s overstating things. But dollar stores are on quite an amazing run. Retailers such as Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar have experienced enormous sales growth over the last few years. Consumers first turned to dollar stores when the recession hit as a quick-fix money saving alternative to supermarkets and big-box chains. Now, it looks like many of those shoppers continue to regularly browse the dollar store for deals on gifts and essentials alike.

The number of consumers shopping at dollar stores for holiday gifts rose this year yet again, and the expansion of dollar store locations seems endless. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Dollar General, which already operates 9,800 stores around the country, expects to open 625 more locations this year, including 50 in California. According to one study, dollar stores now outnumber drugstores in the U.S.

Sure, dollar stores have been the beneficiary of hard times. More consumers will always seek discount stores when a struggling economy forces them to persistently scale back spending. But dollar stores are also experiencing boom times because they provide better products and services than they used to.

(GALLERY: 10 U.S. Retailers Thriving During Tough Times)

That’s the take of New York Times‘ Jesse McKinley, who writes:

What might not be evident to most people is that in many ways the dollar store isn’t what it used to be: it’s better.

He should know. After outfitting most of his apartment with dollar store purchases, McKinley is well aware that nowadays these retailers are more likely to be selling products of decent quality made with real glass or stainless steel, not just the cheap, chintzy plastic of yore. Among McKinley’s dollar store décor:

My son’s room has been decorated with $1 letters covered in $1 paint spelling out his name (J A K E), and his fish swims around a $1 Elmo figurine. My pantry is stocked with $1 herbs in $1 jars, and $1 soups stacked alongside $1 canned veggies. I’ve amassed a collection of $1 ground spices (like cumin, cinnamon and mustard) and $1 salts (celery, bacon and garlic, among others).

I used $1 remedies while moving in (aspirin, muscle rub, bandages) and $1 luxuries to help me relax after (bubble bath, baby oil, cocktail glasses). I found $1 books to read (or leaf through, anyway) and $1 movies to mock.

(MORE: More Shoppers Hit Dollar Stores for Holiday Gifts)

There isn’t anything particularly new with the idea of decorating a home with the help of dollar stores. Tons of bloggers regularly show off their latest dollar-store-enabled redecorating projects, and a decorator on one of those TLC room makeover shows wrote a book on the topic, published in 2005.

But in the recession and post-recession eras, the dollar store find has become a point of pride. People who pay next to nothing for home goods aren’t cheap; they’re smart and savvy.

Unless, of course, they’re not. Like many dollar store shoppers before him, McKinley admits to buying plenty of items mainly because they only cost $1, not because he thought he’d actually use them. And buying something you’re unlikely to use is a waste, even if it does only cost a buck.

(MORE: Warning! Don’t Mix Alcohol and Online Shopping)

Problem dollar store shoppers—those whose homes are already full of unopened or rarely used $1 trinkets and ironic purchases—should take a close look at the dollar store shopping tips at the bottom of the piece. There, you’ll find insights into how dollar stores enable consumers to buy more than they need on each visit, and keep coming back for more. For example, dollar stores are laid out carefully to maximize sales, with holiday items up front, followed by “cleaning supplies (for the after-party tidy-up), which usually leads to the food section: frozen, canned, candied, dried and other (for sustenance while you clean, naturally).”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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