What You Might Find at 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 (pretty standard price, but it's a brand name)
  • 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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