MILWAUKEE -- The other morning, I told a woman at the gym about my $5 dress from Gap. I wasn't wearing it at the time. The dress just came up in conversation.
She shot out an arm for a high five.
I wear cheap on my sleeve. I also keep it in the dining room, where we eat at a Knoll conference table I scored for $50. The living room boasts a vintage Westnofa lounge chair purchased for $40, and a floor model lamp picked up from Pottery Barn for less than half its original price.
For those purchases, I thank serendipity. Even a nonshopper can be at the right place at the right time now and again. But when I need wine glasses, wrapping paper, party goods, kitchen utensils or storage containers, I'll head to Dollar Tree. The stores are clean and well-lighted, and the staff seems genuinely happy to see you.
Tough economic times call for shopping smarter and maybe a little harder. It's not as easy to patch together a look from disparate items in dollar stores, but it's often much more economical. Unlike the mall, the stores aren't bathed in sunlight; the aisles can be narrow; and the inventory is often disheveled. But with the right attitude, finding what you need can be satisfying for both the bargain and the thrill of the hunt.
Karen Owecki is a proud cheapskate -- er, thrifty shopper.
"I think you can always add flair to your home, outdoors or gathering using places like Target, Michaels, Big Lots and dollar stores," said the Shorewood resident. She uses Target for collection pieces such as boxes that match with notebooks or for seasonal items. Owecki shops Michaels for silk flowers and other items such as charger plates when she's having a dinner party.
"I've found beautiful candle holders and small decor items to just add to looks," she said. Her Easter table was set with pieces from Michaels.
The Dollar Tree is one of three dollar-style stores in the Milwaukee area, alongside Dollar General and Family Dollar. There are subtle differences among them; the most obvious might be that Dollar Tree really does sell items for $1 or less. Dollar General and Family Dollar use the term "dollar" as a guideline.
A recent shopping trip to the Dollar Tree uncovered a cartful of bargains. Flower and vegetable seeds sold in packs of 4 for $1 (seeds were higher at Dollar General and Big Lots). Carpet Fresh cost -- you guessed it -- $1 (slightly higher at Dollar General). The store also sells baskets, shells, silk flowers, floral moss, vases and filler for vases such as glass beads or rocks in small quantities for $1.
Shelves are lined with mesh utility bags, sweater and storage bags for $1. Rubbermaid containers that hold 5.2 cups of food each were $1 for a package of two. Blue Royal China plates, made in China, were $1 each.
At Dollar Tree, the four pillars of the business are seasonal items, party items, health and beauty goods, and food and snacks, said Chelle Davis, a spokeswoman for the Virginia-based retailer. Those items lay the foundation for an ever-changing inventory of national, regional and private label brand names. Less than 10 percent of goods sold are closeout products.
"We're committed to the price and not necessarily the product," Davis said. When buyers for Dollar Tree can no longer get a product at a price that makes sense to sell it for $1, they'll replace it with another brand.
If there's criticism of such discount stores, it's that the product is likely from another country. That's not always the case. Family Dollar spokesman Josh Braverman said 70 percent of the store inventory is domestic; 30 percent comes from overseas.
The dollars add up for the customer and the corporation. Dollar Tree posted quarterly net sales of more than $1 billion at its more than 4,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada, according to The New York Times.
"We really position ourselves as a value and convenience retailer," Braverman said. The chain, which has 132 locations in Wisconsin, is popular for discounted health and beauty aids, over-the-counter vitamins and seasonal items, but it's expanding its selection of consumables such as milk, eggs and frozen foods.
The simple discounted price point has caught on. Big-box stores including Target and Michaels dedicate space to items priced between $1 and $2.50. At Target, those products are positioned near the entrance -- handy because you're still feeling flush with cash: Yes, please, I'll take a two-pack of Easter-themed towels for $2.50.
At Michaels, the discount items are settled in bins that circle the cash register. A recent visit uncovered a mirrored dragonfly sun catcher; a magnetized notebook in the shape of a flower for the refrigerator; a clip shaped like a butterfly, and a six-pack of all-purpose greeting cards.
The store has other deals, too. If you're crafty -- I'm not -- look for the naked wood picture frames to decorate how you see fit. My daughter, who is crafty, glued buttons and other items on similar frames to personalize them. For $1 I bought the frame, and for $1.99 I picked up a bag of peel-off fabric owl stickers to create a look (I didn't say it was a good look).
I also purchased a tiny bird figurine for $1.49 at half-price and a basket for $10.79 at 40 percent off. I like to organize.
Technically, Big Lots isn't in the dollar-store realm. It specializes in closeout products that have ended their run with name stores or didn't sell well elsewhere. Bargain hunter Owecki checks in after big holidays when prices on seasonal items drop significantly.
There's a chance of getting something at a discount on any random visit. Need a clock? They have dozens of them ranging in price from $5 to $12. Decorative vases were available for $6.99, while organic kitchen towels were selling for $2 each. Patio furniture is big right now at Big Lots. You could buy an outdoor log chair for $70, but if you're staying inside until summer is official, you could snag an electric fireplace for $279.
If Big Lots were an entree, it would be a crazy stew. Cookware shares space with shower-curtain rods. Picture frames and shoes go toe-to-toe. The purchase of an orange safety vest for $3.50 was tempting since I like cars to see me when I walk the dog, and the vests cost three times that at other stores. Instead, I picked up a set of four ceramic drawer pulls from Jessica McClintock for $8.
The best deal was a package of window privacy film. I use it on the bathroom window to let in light but keep it private and paid more than $20 for a peel-and-stick product similar to the one that Big Lots sells for $10.
That's the thing about discount stores. It's good to know what you want to buy, but you're always going to find something you didn't know you need until you see the low price.
The key is to be aware. Look at the package sizes in comparison to the price. It might be cheaper to wait for a sale on paper napkins at Target than to buy a small package for $1 at Dollar Tree. Dollar stores don't mean you have to leave your math skills and shopping acumen at home.
And with gas prices climbing past $4 a gallon, driving across the city could take the discount out of discount shopping. It's wise to plot the trip ahead of time. Savvy consumers can often find discount stores within shouting distance of each other.
For instance, on S. 27th St., Dollar General is neighbors with Big Lots. Not far from the Dollar Tree on 27th is an all-discount shopping center with Michaels, Marshalls, Anna's Linens and HOBO in the same block.
The less you spend on gas, the more dollars you'll have to spend elsewhere.
What $1 (more or less) can buy
Four packs of garden seeds
A glow-in-the-dark ax
A glass vase
A small basket
A bag of seashells
A picture frame
A bonus-size bottle of Spic N Span
A mesh utility bag
A pair of disposable gloves
A dinner plate
A plastic butter dish
A box of 100 Puffs tissues
A package of 12 red Solo cups
A kitchen towel
A plastic form for cutting the crusts off sandwiches
A slotted spoon
A package of 48 plastic forks
A solar landscape light
A pair of garden gloves
An unpainted birdhouse, small
An acrylic 5-by-7 picture frame
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