Buying bliss for a buck or two: Dollar stores have become a welcome feature of our retail landscape
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 April 2005)

My dollar store, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thy sundries, thy notions, thy tchotchkes, thy knickknacks, thy attitude! I love how effortlessly you seduce me, as if you didn't really care. Of all your qualities, your insouciance touches me most. You are polite but you are distant. You do not advertise, you do not greet me at the door and you never offer to find something for me. This is your essence. Please, never change.

Your cashiers seldom wish me a nice day. They're in a hurry, because there's someone behind me, waiting to hand over more dollars. Miraculously, dollar stores always have a lineup at the cash but never a long one, rarely more than four customers, seldom fewer than three.

If I forget my umbrella and drop in to grab a cheap one, planning the briefest of transactions, I never leave without being ensnared by other products. In vain I try to avoid the stationery shelf, lest I go home again with legal-size pads (you never know when you'll need one) or gorgeous snow-white sheets of bristol board, only a buck each, on whose vast spaces brilliant thoughts might, conceivably, be written. And paper clips! Who can beat the dollar stores for paper clips?

Though the dollar itself isn't what it was, the dollar store prospers. In the culture of retailing, it's the most remarkable change since the advent of Wal-Mart and the big boxes. By stealth, the dollar stores have moved toward the centre of our lives. Just the other day, or so it seems, they all looked chronically temporary, as if they were playing out the leases of dead enterprises with stock acquired cheap at bankruptcy sales. And then, about the time the 21st century got going, they took root. They have come to stay, and they reproduce like fruit flies.

Their popularity may reflect the waning power of name brands. Many people have apparently decided that in everything from batteries to fruit juice they don't much care about the brand. They may also have decided that in many products (duct tape, say, or a Robertson screwdriver) they can settle for something short of national-brand quality.

Every day a new dollar store opens somewhere in North America. Business Week says they're the fastest-growing retailers in the United States. Tens of thousands exist now, and in many other parts of the world as well. Britain has the pound shops, the continental Europeans have euro shops, Japan has 100-yen shops, Australia has two-dollar shops.

Canadians have been a little slower than Americans to embrace dollar stores, but we are learning to love them. There are at least four within a few blocks of where I live in central Toronto, not an unusual number. Big cities like them as much as small towns. In social terms, they are approaching classlessness. Once it was assumed that their patrons had low incomes, but today they often spring up near big-city districts where houses sell for seven figures.

The stores are shaped like bowling alleys, painted like church basements, floored in linoleum. It may be that people officially described as "designers" were associated with building them, but not the kind of designers you see celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art. They make Wal-Mart look like Fifth Avenue. It's said that people who run dollar stores wonder why Wal-Mart goes in for so many frills.

The dollar store is to this era what the five-and-dime was to the first half of the 20th century. Frank Woolworth, beginning with his first five-and-dime in Pennsylvania in 1879, built an empire on the natural human desire to acquire something for nothing or, if not nothing, then next to nothing. Woolworth's eventually owned 1,000 stores and became a word in the language, used in poems by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden in the 1930s and now enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary alongside the adjective Woolworthian, as in "a Woolworthian cheapness."

For a long time everything in Woolworth's cost only a nickel or a dime, but the higher prices of the 1940s made that system impossible. Finding no new formula, the corporation declined, closing its last store in 1997. (Earlier profits, about US$69-million, went to the founder's granddaughter, Barbara Hutton, enabling her to acquire seven husbands, including Cary Grant.)

To the naked eye, each dollar store appears independent, but of course that's not true. They're organized, like everything else on Earth, and inevitably they have conventions in Las Vegas. A global membrane of consultants, franchisers, investors and manufacturers envelopes them. Great Canadian Dollar Store, Family Dollar, Dollar General and 99 Cents Only are among the banners under which they fly. Some dollar stores are franchises, and some of the others are set up by manufacturers who also serve as consultants.

The One Dollar Store chain, for instance, can shepherd a new owner through problems involved in everything from financing to store fixtures, then provide the merchandise. It has fixtures for 15 stores waiting in a warehouse and promises to get your store opened "easily within 40 days, barring acts of God."

Store owners who are more adventurous can buy direct through Dollar A Shop, a Chinese-Indian organization that has mastered American corporate jargon ("our strategy remains customer-driven and our mission keeps us focused") and manufactures its products in Yiwu, China. Those seeking to stock their stores can visit Yiwu, a city of about one-million that at various times in the past has called itself the Home of Culture and the Home of Modern Folk Painting; it is now advertised as the "World capital of the dollar store products." Trade buyers can visit its plants while placing their orders for a dog leash, supplied in a neat little polybag for 31 cents, a cosmetic brush with stand (25 cents), or a corkscrew (34 cents). This is a business of tiny numbers multiplied (when things work out) by large numbers.

In a world that's already far too cool, and yet trying to be cooler still, the dollar store constitutes the Loyal Opposition in retail. It's the only place in town that can't be trendy because it doesn't know what a trend is. The dollar store embodies all that is un-cool and anti-cool. Long may it flourish.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page