Trip to the 99-Cent Store

The first time I went to the 99-cent store was about four years ago. I went primarily out of curiosity, and I was pretty creeped out. I was mostly interested in looking at the food, and it seemed like everything they sold was one letter off from the brand name item: Rice Krispis, Milk-e-way, you get the idea. I left without buying anything, convinced that there was something wrong with every item in the store. There had to be for everthing to be so cheap, right?

Well, after listening to a radio show where they interviewed a guy who calls himself the 99-cent chef, I decided to give the store a second chance. The chef, Billy Vasquez, uses surprising ingredients he finds at 99-cent stores to create delicious and affordable meals. When I heard him talking about finding fresh produce, I thought it was time to reconsider the store.

Not everything at the 99-cent store even cost 99 cents. Some items were as low as 25 or 39 cents. I was kind of expecting to find items that cost multiples of 99 cents based on some of the things I’d heard they sold there (like bags of lettuce), but that was not the case. Nothing costs more than 99 cents.

Some items are made to be 99 cents by being sold in unusually small quantities, like a bottle of Tylenol containing only 8 caplets (which is better than the convenience store price of 2 caplets for 99 cents) or a 16-ounce bottle of milk. Some of these items could probably be described as penny wise but pound foolish-they may save you money in the short run, but in the long run you’d come out ahead by buying a larger quantity. Of course, if you don’t take Tylenol regularly, it’s not such a bad deal to only have to spend a buck to get a few caplets for emergencies. Or if your budget is so tight that you’d have to put the Tylenol on a credit card if you were forced to buy a $5 bottle at the drugstore, then the 99-cent option might actually be more economical.

While the store itself was a bit grungy and old and not my idea of a particularly pleasant shopping experience, I was pleasantly surprised by many of the items I found there. Quite a few of them were even brand-name products. Nothing had damaged packaging, either. Here are the items I was most excited about finding:

  • 3 pack of scrubby sponges, 99 cents (comparable item costs $3 or more at a regular store)
  • Goody hair bands and hair clips ($2 to $3 at Target)
  • Name-brand candy, some in regular flavors (Crunch bars) some in unusual flavors (Java Twix, Cherry M&Ms, Mint Crunch M&Ms)
  • Some perfectly good-looking produce (I got an entire bag of limes that would normally cost $2 to $4)
  • The ability to buy individual cans of soda, with brands ranging from always-budget Shasta to normally pricey San Pellegrino
  • 24 ounce, squirt-top bottled water for 39 cents (normally $1)
  • Full-sized Palmolive dish soap for 99 cents ($1.79 at my local grocery store)
  • Full-sized any other cleaning product you could possibly need
  • Picture frames (yes, made of glass. I was expecting plastic)
  • Microfiber cleaning cloths, 99 cents ($5 to $6 at Bed, Bath and Beyond)
  • Duncan Hines cake mix, 99 cents
  • 3 ceramic plates for 99 cents
  • Wine and cocktail glasses for 99 cents each
  • 250 straws in bright, attractive colors, 99 cents (100 boring white and blue-striped straws, $1.50 on sale at the grocery store)

Some items were clearly of lesser quality, like the not-quite-red tomatoes (of course, I see those at regular grocery stores, too). The plastic baskets looked like they might break easily. And I couldn’t get myself to buy the no-brand soy milk. Actually, I couldn’t get myself to buy anything in the frozen and refrigerated section, at least in part because it seemed haphazardly thrown in there. I also couldn’t get past the fear that some of it might be expired, which wasn’t a concern with boxed items or the produce (since I could see that it was still good).

In the future, I think I’ll make the 99-cent store my first stop any time I need to buy something since they sell such a surprising variety of food, drugstore items, housewares, and other miscellaneous items. The bargains are so good, it’s like going to a garage sale or a thrift store, but with a much larger selection and brand-new items.

Another thing the store can be good for is satisfying the urge to shop without doing major damage. For example, I overheard a customer talking to a friend saying that her kids were bugging her to take them shopping, so she took them to the 99-cent store. That way, she could make her kids happy while spending very little.

After my experience with giving the 99-cent store a second chance, I’ll definitely be going there more often.

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19 Responses to Trip to the 99-Cent Store

  1. Hey, Amy. I recently wrote about what I do and don’t buy at a dollar store, and why. Since you’re new to the whole dollar-store idea, you might enjoy a quick skim:
    What would you not buy at a dollar store?

  2. fern says:

    I would look very carefully at where any products you buy at a dollar store are made if it’s food or anything you put on or in your body. Chances are, it’s made in China. Enough said.

  3. Russell says:

    The proliferation of 99p shops here in the UK has certainly got the

  4. Ours sells some name brand stuff. Non is outdated–in MO it is illegal to sell outdated foods and they have to follow the same health dept regs as grocery stores.
    Ours also takes coupons. So Dawn for 99 cents minus a 75 cent coupon is a real good deal–full sized Dawn for 24 cents.
    I also find neat things there for the RV and camping trips–such as plastic tablecloths, dishes, clothesline….

  5. ~Dawn says:

    I am not a big dollar/99

  6. Jo says:

    Always check in at our local Dollar Tree. Over the years I have come across some incredible bargains

  7. Michelle says:

    One time I put together some children’s gift bags for a friend’s wedding – the markers, crayons, etc., that I found for my goody bags were an absolute steal at the dollar store.

  8. Nadine says:

    Thank you for sharing your shopping experience at the 99-cents store. I would like to share with readers that not all 99 Cents stores are made equal. The original 99 cents store was opened in Los Angeles, CA by Dave Gold, founder of the 99 Cents Only Stores based out out of City of Commerce, CA. These stores are the ones with the green “only” on logo and where nothing in the store is over 99.99

  9. Panda Bear says:

    Think about this: How can they sell things so cheap and still make enough of a profit to stay in business?
    I went to the local 99.cents store and I found the answer to the above question; they had some name brands such as Campbells’ Spaghetti-O’s, Ravioli, etc., HOWEVER they were outdated by over a year~GROSS! (and I live in a large metropolitan area on the west coast, by the way, so don’t think that I’m a hick from the hills!)
    The heads of lettuce were OOZING some kind of dark, foamy, thick liquid and had definitely seen better days~GROSS!
    In a recent article mentioned “CHEAP TOYS”- I’m sure it read it- well, talk about CHEAP TOYS! All from CHINA and you know what that says.
    No, you can have your .99-cents stores. I’m still fulfilling my fantasies about spending the day at Wally World! They may carry items that are cheaply produced and from China as well, BUT at least you have the choice of buying MADE IN USA from Sam! .99-cents stores are just GROSS!

  10. Texas Girl says:

    ICK ~ you can HAVE your .99 store food! I do shop there if I have to run in and buy a bottle of windex or something NON edible to avoid walking 10 miles through Super WalMart to get one thing and then stand in their long lines, but I have been duped into buying the cheap wine glasses which shattered in the dishwashwer on the first use, the 99 placemats that were *REALLY* cute and literally shredded in the washer the first time I washed them, and a can of corn I bought for a casserole that had chunks of something black and hard throughout….makes you wonder if they canned it right there in the fields of Mexico??

    I will *NEVER* buy food or re-usable goods there. Cleaning products, yes. Plastic shoe storage boxes, yes. That’s about it.

  11. Lyn Clarke says:

    I live in the midwest so we do not have 99

  12. Chris says:

    You made several good points in your article Amy. The experience I had with my first 99 cent store went the same way. They are definately an effective money saver despite how the quality of the items may appear to be lesser of that which you can find in the mainstream stores. Great article all around Amy, nice work.

  13. Amber says:

    I love to buy my dishwashing soap (Ajax or Palmolive) at the 99 cents only store. It feels a whole lot better to buy a bottle of soap for a buck than it does to pay $3 for the same thing.

    I typically just get housewares at my store. Sometimes I pick up some Swansons chicken broth and some star-shaped pasta if I want to make Chicken and Stars soup (the pasta is at least twenty-five cents less than at my grocery store).

    Usually when I go the produce is either non-existant or very picked over, but that’s because I usually don’t get a chance to go until late in the afternoon.

  14. sharon says:

    I’d just like to say that if not for these stores. I would be in deep trouble. (I am unemployed and struggling.) The stores are now full of fresh vegatables in regular size package’s like Vons or anywhere else.
    They carry fresh bread, milk,butter, yes real butter, eggs, yogurt, tons of snacks for lunches single servvings of fish, lunch meat. They don’t always have every single thing every single time but there alwys is a subsitute for the smart shopper. Almost everything you can imagine. Anyone who hasn’t checked them out by this time is a little foolish.

  15. Gerry says:

    As #8 noted, the “99 cents” store now charges ONE DOLLAR for most items – others are multiples of ten cents. At least one store now charges 3 cents per plastic bag at checkout.

    As for food: some of you are simply wrong. Brands sold in chain supermarkets can be found, along with the “what?” names. Always check the expiration date. Many food items are dumped at these stores precisely because the expiration dates are coming up.

  16. Sonja says:

    I have been shopping at dollar stores for years for all my pantry goods – canned veggies, fruits, pastas, beans, etc. It has saved me thousands of dollars over the years. I also buy all of my household supplies and toiletries there as well. We don’t have The 99cent Store here, but I use Dollar Tree and Dollar General every month. One other great thing is cards, batteries and candles. (we live in Louisiana so these are necessities for hurricane season 🙂

  17. Lila says:

    I live in Las Vegas and our 99 cent stores do not carry anything expired or really anything anywhere near expiring. I buy only name brand items there and save a ton! I just bought about 10 vitamin water for 50 cents a piece and usually i pay 1.49 a piece for them! People have this pre-conceived notion that spending more for something means your getting better quality. That is a scam! Your just getting ripped off…and I happen to be a bit of a food snob as well cooking gourmet most of the time…

  18. Elle says:

    I’ve gotten turned on to the 99 cents only store about 6 years ago when I moved to Texas. I absolutely love this place! I pick up the Sunday paper every week for half the cost, I even picked up some Gain dishwashing deteregent yesterday for $1.59 in the 30 oz bottles!! Walgreens and CVS charges almost that for the small 10 oz bottles. I also, pick up dryer sheets, Downy liquid fabric softener, Lunchables, Liquid Egg Whites, Silk SoyMilk, Sara Lee Pies and 100% whole wheat bread, I’ve even picked up digiorno pizza (large size) on an occasion. Don’t get me wrong, there are somethings there that are not a great deal, but you have to be a savvy shopper.

  19. James Kingston Jr says:

    The 99 cent store is amazing, great stock and variety!
    On the next following black friday, I plan to camp out a week before black friday to get even better deals at 99 cent only store!
    Shopper heaven may I say?

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