WITH FOOD AND gas prices on the rise, shopping at dollar stores may seem like a great way to get more bang for your buck. But while dollar stores offer plenty of great deals, there are also plenty of duds that aren't worth the money -- no matter what the discount.
"In general, things that you want to last a long time are not going to cost you a dollar," notes Shakira Brown of Retail Secrets for Savvy Consumers, a frugal living blog. "Any product that costs a dollar is worth less than a dollar. Otherwise, what profit would be in it?"
We're not just talking about shoddy products, some are downright dangerous. "Sometimes seemingly innocuous items show up with safety issues," says Tod Marks, a senior editor with Consumer Reports. Unfortunately, many of the most problem-prone dollar store products are those that offer the biggest discounts.
Here are five items to steer clear of when shopping at your local dollar store:
Batteries: Like most people, you probably don't think twice about what's inside those ultra-cheap batteries you're buying, but you should. Most dollar-store battery brands are made with carbon zinc -- a far more inferior option than the ones you can buy at the hardware or drugstore, says Tom Merritt, executive editor for electronics review site CNET. "You do not want those," he says. "It's one of the original battery technologies, and generally has very poor performance." You'll go through the pack of carbon zinc batteries much faster, negating any savings from the cheaper purchase price. Look instead for alkaline batteries. Unfortunately, these batteries are a rare find at dollar stores.
Toothpaste: While some personal-care products, like shampoo, can be excellent dollar-store buys, toothpaste isn't one of them. In June 2007, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that many imported toothpastes typically found at dollar stores and other discount outlets contained the poisonous chemical diethylene glycol (DEG) -- most commonly used as a thickener in antifreeze. To date, the agency has identified more than 40 hazardous brands, including several counterfeit tubes that look like Colgate. Repeated brushing with a DEG-laced toothpaste can have serious health consequences, says Rita Chappelle, a spokeswoman for the FDA. "It causes liver and kidney damage and other gastrointestinal problems," she says. Although import restrictions and recalls were issued to halt the distribution and sale of the tainted toothpaste, consumers still need to remain vigilant. "There could still be some products on shelves," warns Chappelle. Because it can be tough to tell the problem tubes from the real deal (it's not as if diethylene glycol is listed as an ingredient), the safest course is to fork over a little more cash for a tube at your local supermarket or drugstore, where there's more quality control.
Electrical Products: "When shopping for holiday lights and extension cords, it's never a good idea to bargain-hunt for the lowest price," says Patty Davis, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Components of electrical products like these can be expensive, and that should be reflected in the price. In the cheapest (often counterfeit) items, the wiring may be undersized, meaning more current goes through than the device can handle, adds Consumer Reports' Marks. They may also have substandard insulation. At best, these problems make for a faulty product that shorts out. At their worst, the cords can overheat or melt, shocking anyone handling them or even starting a fire.
Kids' Jewelry: Because many dollar-store items are mass-produced by little-known manufacturers in China, there's a considerable risk of high lead content, cautions Marianne Szymanski, founder of ToyTips.com, a toy safety resource for parents. "Don't buy kids' products from the dollar store," she says. "Until you can be confident that there is no lead, I just wouldn't." Especially risky are any items made of metal or that will have close contact with your child's skin -- like jewelry. In 2007, the CPSC announced recalls for more than 1.5 million jewelry products from dollar and discount stores due to high lead content. While just touching the items can't hurt, kids do tend to put things in their mouths, Szymanski says. And lead-laced paint can easily flake and be ingested. Any lead consumption is unsafe, potentially affecting the exposed child's ability to learn and causing behavioral issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Repeated or prolonged exposure to lead compounds the problems. As last year's widespread recalls proved, dangerous levels of lead can show up in toys from any manufacturer at any price point. Sticking with well-known brands is your best bet for safety, but even that's not a cure-all, warns Szymanski.
Vitamins: Multivitamins are supposed to fill in the gaps in a person's diet, helping them meet their recommended daily intake of nutrients and bolster their immune system. That is, if the vitamin does what it's supposed to do. "The dollar store products can be dicey," says Marks. Because the FDA considers multivitamins a dietary supplement, there's significantly less oversight when it comes to their composition and effects on the body than there is for prescription medications. In a 2004 analysis, Consumer Reports found that half of the dollar-store vitamin brands it studied contained less of the nutrients claimed on the label, or failed to dissolve properly when ingested. No such problems turned up in similar investigations of major brand names, says Marks. Read our story here for tips on some of the best ways to save when buying everything from airplane tickets to groceries.
By Kelli B Grant