To save money on weekly grocery bills, more people are turning to dollar stores. Now considered the fastest-growing food retailers in an economy hit by inflation, Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Family Dollar are seeing a wide range of customers come through their doors.
In 2022, Dollar Tree CEO Mike Witynski told Insider that most of their new customers were from households with incomes of at least $80,000 annually.
“Our consumers are relying on our stores to meet their budget goal,” he said.
Social media continues to push this shopping trend into the mainstream as influencers share tips and tricks to save money on groceries, home goods and other common items.
Rebecca Chobat started her Dollar Tree Dinners TikTok series to showcase how people with limited means can create easy and satisfying meals. She now has more than 1 million TikTok followers, and her audience appears to be economically diverse.
I confess to having my own bias against dollar store shopping. In the early days of going to these stores with my mom, we never sought ways to save money on essentials. Most of the time, she was on the hunt for an inexpensive item to add to a gift bag or to stuff my daughters’ stockings for Christmas.
With product choices limited and their quality often questionable, my first impressions were not good. So, I steered clear of the dollar chains. It wasn’t because I couldn’t use the savings — who couldn’t, really? But why waste my time if the store only sold knick-knacks and things I wouldn’t use?
Yet, with the influx of dollar store influencers on my social media feeds, I began to notice major changes to what they were offering to customers. The posts from content creators worked well because I grew curious enough to check these stores out again.
Today, dollar store chains have overhauled their inventories to include both the kitschy stuff they’ve been known for over the years and a more robust collection of essential items.
For instance, I had no idea until I saw the Dollar Tree Dinners series that some dollar store chains have a frozen food and refrigeration section. I assumed, though, that this was a special store close to the content creator’s location. I was pretty sure the Dollar Tree I have down the street in my small, rural southwest Ohio town doesn’t have that.
I walked into the store, and there it was, along the back wall. A freezer and refrigerator section stocked well with name-brand foods.
I also went to the Dollar General store across the street; surprisingly, they had a similar setup.
Even though I discovered similar options at various dollar stores, I started to wonder about their differences. After all, even traditional grocery stores vary in product choices and prices.
This began my deep dive into the dollar store world.
I explored three local retailers in my area: Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Family Dollar. In each of the places, I had specific things I wanted to see in their products: reasonable prices, good variety and availability, trusted brands, and high quality.
I went into this with little knowledge of any of the stores and checked out a couple of locations of each retailer to account for differences in individual management.
While my methods were not scientific, I believe I found some definitive conclusions to determine an overall winner.
Let’s break this down.
First, none of the dollar stores I visited have many items that are just $1. Those days are over.
The lowest price you’ll see on most products is $1.25. And, depending on the item, you might be surprised to find items with similar prices to grocery stores — and sometimes in smaller quantities.
This is especially true for name-brand products. Gain detergent, for example, ranges in price from $5.50 to $16.25, depending on where you shop and how much you need.
All three dollar store chains offered various categories of products, including food, home goods, kitchen supplies, toys and more. From pantry staples (rice, cereal, pasta, cake mixes) to paper goods and laundry, you’ll find what you need at Dollar General, Dollar Tree or Family Dollar.
The major difference between the three retailers was store size, which dictated the number of products they could stock. Overall, the Family Dollar stores I visited were smaller. They not only had fewer overall types of products but less variety of brands.
Store shelves were well stocked at Dollar Tree and Dollar General across most departments. The refrigerator/freezer sections were clearly the most popular shopping spots. None were empty, but several items had low or no stock. In this section, you’ll find milk, eggs, cheese, and other grocery staples.
At Family Dollar, the laundry and household cleaning aisles needed restocking.
Dollar General had a similar issue with lightly stocked shelves but had more products overall.
Dollar Tree’s shelves had plenty of options for customers.
Product supplies will vary daily, depending on when each store gets new shipments and re-stocking occurs. However, I visited each of the stores around the same time each day (early afternoon) and the same time of the week (Wednesday-Friday) to try to keep comparisons equitable.
Customers won’t be stuck with no-frills brands when shopping at any of the dollar store chains I visited. Of course, store-label or generic brands are also available, which can mean saving a dollar or two at checkout.
All three dollar store chains carried popular products like Kraft macaroni and cheese, Knorr sides, Hunt’s tomato sauce, Idahoan mashed potatoes, Charmin toilet paper, Doritos chips, Eggo Waffles and much more.
All the food products I picked off the shelf had acceptable expiration dates, debunking a popular myth about discount grocery stores selling expired products. No matter where you shop, you should always check best-by and expiration dates to ensure freshness.
To test product quality, I decided to try three kinds of different toilet paper. All of them were store-brand or off-brand varieties.
Family Dollar’s Homeline Ultra Strong ($1.50 for two rolls) and Dollar General’s True Living ($3.50 for four rolls) toilet paper were both two-ply. Neither of them felt exceptionally soft. I can see going through these rolls quickly, even though they are listed as “mega-size.”
Dollar Tree’s “Strong and Soft” two-ply toilet paper ($1.25 for 4 rolls) performed slightly better than the other two brands. In a pinch, I’d use it regularly. But I admit I prefer name brands in my bathroom.
I also tried paper towels from all three locations. I wasn’t overly impressed with any of them. Yes, they served the purpose, but I needed multiple sheets to do my typical clean-ups in the kitchen. I rarely use name-brand paper towels (I bounce back and forth between Walmart and Kroger brands), so I’m not against store brands. I simply didn’t like any of the three I purchased during my tests.
Which Dollar Store Is Best?
For me, Dollar Tree was the clear winner. It ranked at the top for product variety, quality, and consistency with price. Most of its items are $1.25, and those that aren’t are clearly marked.
This store also got high marks from me for its overall appearance and ease of navigation. Each location I visited was well-lit and marked and also well-stocked, with wider aisles. Since starting my research for this story, I have returned to Dollar Tree several times to pick up items I need to stock up for holiday events and meals.
That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend Dollar General or Family Dollar. I am fortunate to have many options within a 10-15 minute drive of my home. I have the luxury of choice. Any of these dollar discount chains serve their customers with more affordable prices that can help a family’s bottom line. To save the most money, check the prices and sizes of products before making your final purchase.
This story originally appeared on Don't Waste Your Money.