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How to Save Even More Money at Dollar Stores

Land great deals on groceries and more merchandise

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While other U.S. retail stores are disappearing, dollar stores are popping up everywhere. In fact, the two biggest operators added 942 storefronts over a recent 12-month stretch, for a total of more than 31,000 sites. That's more than all the McDonald's and Starbucks outlets in the U.S. combined.

That's no surprise to anyone who has shopped in a dollar store lately. These retailers — Dollar Tree and Family Dollar (both owned by the same company), plus Dollar General — now carry all kinds of groceries, including brand-name products, in addition to usual dollar store fare like no-name batteries and greeting cards. A new study by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found that 84 percent of produce and 89.5 percent of non-produce items cost much less at these discount chains, and the produce quality is comparable to what's in supermarkets. But just because there are lots of bargains doesn't mean everything's a good deal. Here are five ways to save more at dollar stores — and avoid the duds.

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1. Read the ingredients

When buying packaged foods like granola bars, crackers, soup and cereal from unknown brands, check nutrition labels. I found a box of granola bars that looked a lot like a Quaker Oats product. But the top ingredient in the dollar store product was high fructose corn syrup; Quaker Oats lists granola first.

2. Do the math

Sizes are often different at dollar stores, so it's not always easy to do a quick apples-to-apples price comparison. My advice: Before going, jot down unit prices of items you buy regularly at your grocery store. Then, if need be, use the calculator on your smartphone to compare those to dollar store prices. Some products aren't as cheap as they might seem. For example, I bought a 5-ounce can of shaving cream at Dollar Tree for $1, which comes out to 20 cents per ounce. Bed Bath & Beyond, though, sold a 10-ounce container of the same brand of shaving cream for $1.24, or 12.4 cents an ounce — 38 percent less.

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3. Pile on the coupons

Dollar General and Family Dollar feature sales and juicy store coupons on their websites, plus they accept manufacturer coupons. You can also download dollar store phone apps for coupons on the go. The Family Dollar app's newly launched Smart Spins feature offers surprise coupons, and the store allows you to combine store and manufacturer coupons. Just be sure to check retailer websites for restrictions; for example, Dollar Tree — where everything truly costs no more than a dollar — accepts manufacturer coupons, but you're limited to four a day. Also sign up for email alerts to keep up on special deals.

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4. Try the store brands

Though ingredients might not be the same as big brands, many are worth a try. For example, I found a small container of liquid Downy for 10 cents an ounce; Dollar Tree's LA's Totally Awesome private-label fabric softener was less than 2 cents an ounce. Major dollar stores may have multiple house brands. Dollar General's private-label brands include DG, Clover Valley, Heartland Farms, and Smart & Simple. Family Dollar's brands include Eatz, Family Chef and Silver Falls.

5. Review products carefully

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The three big dollar store chains last summer settled charges from the New York attorney general that they sold obsolete or expired goods, including over-the-counter drugs. And in November, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to Dollar Tree about “potentially unsafe” over-the-counter drugs. So check expiration dates, and beware of super-cheap items that could pose a hazard.

Lisa Lee Freeman, cohost of the Hot Shopping Tips podcast, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports and a reporter for The Dr. Oz Show.

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