By Christopher C. Happ
©2004, all rights reserved
In the early 1980’s, I first came across a phenomenon that would grow and spread to present day. I lived in a historic turn of-thatcentury neighborhood that had gone through the normal ebbs and flows that neighborhoods go through.
At this time in history, the neighborhood was on the decline. That is where I first saw it. A small store on a ruddy street that had a large sign that promised; Nothing over $1.00! I was curious and entered; the inventory reminded me of a hybrid of stores in Tijuana and Nogales and Oriental stores in Los Angeles and now Phoenix.
There were many brands that I was not familiar with. Shelves were stocked with dented cans, a plethora of rice and noodle choices and near expired produce selections, interspersed with cans of dog and cat food that I could never bear to offer my pet.
I wondered if this represented the specter of a declining economy; as do so many Check cashing stores, Payday loan stores and pawn shops that spring forth in a dying neighborhood.
I looked around for a few minutes and I think I bought a can of name brand oven cleaner for fifty cents. It cleaned the oven well enough, after I modified the spray head that was ill-designed. After removing the defective button and holding the remaining plastic tube down with my pocket knife; I ended up emptying the entire contents into the oven, drip by drip.
Many of these products are salvage items scooped up from truck and train wrecks, or sometimes they are the products that made it through the prototype stage and into the manufacturing stage but for some reason; possibly poor market timing or bad design or overproduction, or even mislabeling, or a lawsuit have found their final days on the shelves of the dollar store.
Of course you cannot buy everything here. I walked quickly past the frozen food section! I envisioned poly bags of frozen Red Snapper fillets, sliding out of a wrecked train car and wallowing in the Florida sun before being scooped up by a salvage company; hired by an insurance company to mitigate the loss! You can buy batteries there if you can handle your flashlight operating for a little over seven seconds.
These stores are great for fly swatters, clothes hangers, picture frames, seeds, plastic cups and inexpensive mismatched china cups, metal scrub pads and glasses or candles. Cleaning supplies are pretty straightforward.
There are cubes of canned sodas stacked in the aisles with brands like Shasta that I have not seen in years in the mainstream stores. Have these been stock-piled since the 1960’s? I did see some original Morton T.V. dinners; you know, the three-compartment foil trays with foil wrap on top!? These must have been found in a bomb shelter. They were definitely manufactured before the advent of microwave ovens! Actually the Amana Radar Range made its debut in 1954! (Model 1161)These could be the next collectibles, save your turntables!
Soon after, probably due to inflation, these dollar stores became 99 cent stores. That one penny has always held us captive. We know that $12.99 is thirteen dollars but we somehow feel better. A penny saved- mentality perhaps? Now they do it with cars, This Sunday only! $19,999! And houses Reduced to sell! Only $425,999!
What scares me is that by the standard retail markup of 50%, they are buying these products for 49.5 cents. Oddly, I just noticed that there is not a “cents” symbol available on my keyboard any longer! Save your typewriters!
I am sure that many of these products are imports from China. When I was young, Made in Japan was a shameful slur for cheap ineffective products. Now we buy Japanese products like, Sony, Toshiba, Toyota, Nissan and all types of electronic equipment for their low price and high quality.
I was shocked while on a recent business trip in New York to see a $15 Store in the airport. It still looked like a store in Tijuana, filled with Sweatpants, shirts, handbags and cheap jewelry. Airports are a good hiding place for these stores. You are probably passing through and once back in Des Moines or wherever; returning defective merchandise will be impossible. Now that I think of it; who returns things to a dollar store? Do they even accept returns?
K-Mart is on the decline but Wal-Mart is booming. At Wal-Mart, the reverse seems to be true. I have to be very careful there. Wal-Mart should be known as the $80 store. If you go for batteries, you will most certainly spend eighty or more dollars, enticed onward by that little yellow round bastard; with the goofy smile.
Now that I think back, the precursors of these stores were the generic products of the 1970’s. (A poor economic time of rampant inflation) You know the white-labeled cans with modest black print, which advertised its contents in less than flowery terms. For Example, just: Applesauce or Pumpkin Pie Filling or the first one that I saw, simply: Mixed Vegetables.
You will occasionally see a flat or two of these products in the dollar stores. These things are over thirty years old!
FMH has taken over all of the generic food products. You will see their brand of bacon and sliced cheese in many grocery stores, there to entice the poorest of the poor. I bought a package of American cheese slices out of pure frugality. How bad could it be?
Actually the plastic wrapping was impossible to remove from the cheese slice inside. The texture of the cheese was not unlike the wrapping. On the same trip, I was enticed into buying a bag of shredded Cheddar Cheese. (I thought) They purposely set these FMH products right next to the most expensive brand of cheese or bacon. Some probably grab it by mistake. The shredded cheese was plastic-like and upon reading the label, I noticed it was called melted cheese topping. It actually turned to oil and yellow dye and slid right off of my burger! Sort of like non-dairy creamer; or whipped topping more oxymorons.
I suppose these Generic products gave rise to the warehouse stores of the current and last decade. Price Club and Sam’s Club. The products here are for the most part high quality as long as you can use a thirty pound cube of mayonnaise in a box or a one-hundred pound bag of Cat Nibbles or a thirty-two portion, #10 can of anything!