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99 Cent Store, Day One: The Ick Factor

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Homeschool Mom, embarking on her 99 Cent Only Store experiment, attempts to get over the "ick factor."

99 Cent Store Day one

Homeschool Mom: Before shopping, I thought I would do a little research on the 99 Cent Only Store. On the website, I was told the store envisions itself as a deep-discount store for people it refers to as "price-sensitive consumers," and a fun treasure-hunt experience for the "value conscious consumer." I translate "price-sensitive" to mean those who have no choice other than to shop cheap, and those who are "value conscious" as just cheap.
This week I am going to be a price-sensitive person and see how my family would do if the 99 Cent store were our only food shopping choice.

Also on the website, they have a famous photograph taken by Andreas Gursky in 1999 at the Hollywood, C.A., 99 Cent Only Store, which has been displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art as well as in Paris and London. The photo shows row upon row of items stuffed onto shelves. The photo recently sold for $3,346,456. In 2008, all 281 stores grossed 1.2 billion dollars. Who knew there was so much cash to be made from crap?

And there is quite a bit of crap, I must say. It's not a pretty place, the 99 Cent Only Store. I think a big hurdle I will have to get over this week is that compared to some of the swank food chains, with their mood lighting and artful displays, shopping at the 99 Cent store is like grocery shopping at the Greyhound bus station. As I pushed my sticky, purple and green cart into the store, past the jaundiced alcoholic asking for spare change, I was sorely missing those courtesy wipes that they have at the entrance to most supermarkets.

99 Cent Store Day one

I must admit I was hesitant to make any purchases, so I strolled through the aisles awed by the variety of ways you can apparently preserve shellfish. There were cans of smoked mussels, clams, scallops, and even something called "imitation abalone." I actually had chills up and down my spine as I imagined taking a bite of any one of them. Luckily, there were more familiar items like Sloppy Joe Sauce, and canned beans and veggies, etc. There was quite a bit of produce, and except for a cloud of fruit flies over some moldy oranges, it looked like most of it was quite good. There were also dairy and deli displays, and upon reading some labels for bread and crackers, I found that a few brands were actually trans fat-free and good for you.

My spirits lifted, although I still walked out of the store with only a quart of white vinegar I need to boil my kids' medical equipment in. I needed to go home, prepare, strategize, sanitize myself, and perhaps visit another 99 Cent Only Store in a different neighborhood before attempting to actually buy groceries. This was going to be a little more difficult than I had thought.

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26 comments so far | Post a comment now
Marla Fisher May 19, 2009, 5:33 PM

I’m trying to get hold of you. Can you email me? Thanks.

Anonymous May 19, 2009, 6:03 PM

This makes me sad - not only for those that can only afford to shop at these places but for you because you sound like you are too good to shop at a 99 cent store. A lot of people have to make do for their family by shopping at the 99 cent store. Who are you to go in there and compare it to a bus station, speak of there “sticky” carts and imply that there are only alcoholics that hand out in the front. Good for you if you can shop at Vons, Ralphs, Albertsons etc. but don’t assume that everyone else that shops a a 99 cent store is beneath you and eating fruit that has flies all over it…Pray you never have to be in this situation.

amie May 19, 2009, 7:18 PM

Wow! I didn’t think it sounded like she thought she was too good to shop at this store at all. And she never said that all people standing outside 99 cent stores are alcoholics, just made observations of her visit there. Simmer down there…

Jasmin May 19, 2009, 8:27 PM

actually, the author of this does sond like an explorer from the 18th century and the way those self-proclaimed “civilised” people talked about the savages they encountered on their journeys into the wild unknown. (“The savages begged for our money while we, overwhelmed by smells, were missing the basic hygiene products of our civilization”) Now, its either a satirical piece by choice of the author which makes it rather funny while not p.c. at all, OR the author was unaware of her own attitude towards “the lower classes” which makes her seem to be very arrogant and not compassionate at all.

Jim May 19, 2009, 8:30 PM

So, this is supposed to be day one of a week long experiment centered around feeding a family with food purchased at the 99 cent store, right? Then why does she chicken out and only buy vinegar? If she is supposed to be replicating circumstances in which shopping there would be unavoidable, then I can’t say I’m very impressed with the job she’s doing.

alissen May 19, 2009, 9:56 PM

I cant say i am impressed either. try living like that.. you sound like any of the food there is beneath you. guess what, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, their homes and this is how they HAVE to, not CHOOSE to shop! get over yourself! and if your conducting a week long is Tuesday, so what has your family eaten in the past two days?

Anonymous May 19, 2009, 10:43 PM

QUOTE: “…a few brands were actually trans fat-free and good for you…
…I actually had chills up and down my spine as I imagined taking a bite of any one of them…
I needed to go home, prepare, strategize, sanitize myself…”QUOTE END
give me a break! incredibly offensive!
and she is home-schooling her kids? what does she know about reality, and how will her kids learn. “Look what those poor people eat: 99 cents worth of octopus.” (assuming thats her daughter in the picture!)
this is not a mom i can relate to, sorry.

Anonymous May 19, 2009, 10:59 PM

Okay and the vinegar she bought was to clean her children’s toys not used to cook dinner!

Wendi May 20, 2009, 12:05 AM

I shop at the 99 cent store all the time. In fact that is pretty much the main place that I buy drinks. They always have V8 that is low sodium, which my hubby loves in his lunch. Its only 59 cents a can. I could totally buy groceries there for a week and have almost done it before when we were not as blessed. There is nothing wrong with the store, just check expiration dates so that you have time to use the item. Most of the workers there are very friendly and some will even tell you the days that the trucks come and the time. That way you can be there to get the new items, which can be anywhere from lunchables to sandwich meat or microwave dinners. Give it a chance and don’t be so negative about it.

M.A.P May 20, 2009, 2:35 AM

I hate reading about people who think they are too good for stuff like this.
“Can I survive?” What kind of crock is that? Honestly? Of course you can, you just don’t want to because you think you are so much better than that. My husband and I are both very lucky to have steady jobs in an industry that frankly will just never die. We live very well for being younger than 30. We have plenty of money to shop at the pricey grocery store any day of the week, but we decide to get the better deal when we can and buy cheaper. We don’t set ‘higher’ standards for ourselves just because our bank account has a nice cushion. I don’t take for granted the things that I have, but it sure seems like she does. She should be happy that she is able to even feed her children, because thousands of people can’t. They would be overjoyed to even have enough money to purchase enough food for one meal from the dollar store if that means their children will not go to bed hungry for one day. I can’t believe you would be so selfish to even write the things that you did…”I need to sanitize myself”… wouldn’t want you get that poor disease now do you? it will make you a jaundice alcoholic with fruit flies for friends. I hope your pretty designer shoes get stuck in something ‘icky’ at the next store you visit.

Gail Cooke May 20, 2009, 2:41 AM

I don’t mind shopping at $1 stores….one Christmas I bought a huge amount of food for Food Bank, more than I could ever get paying chain store prices…not brand names, but good food. I don’t see anything wrong with it…when I can get to a store I buy stuff for myselff as well.

frugal mom May 20, 2009, 2:59 AM

I found the article to be right on, having shopped at many dollar type stores. I love these stores but I do understand the “ick” factor and have stopped going to one in particular because it’s, well, gross! I suspect Homeschool Mom found one of those stores but the good news is, there’s plenty of dollar type stores around and she will no doubt find herself in one that is well cared for.
The vinegar was to sterilze her kids medical equipment and it sounds like she went on scouting mission first to be able to prepare a meal plan in advance.
I wonder if the .99 Only store sells chill pills :D

frugal mom May 20, 2009, 3:31 AM

oh, P.S. If the people who find themselves down on their luck can afford to shop only the dollar store…they have WAY more money than I do! Dollar stors have no sales. Grocery stores do. That’s ridiculous to think that way and I suspect Homeschool Mom will reveal that in her future witty and entertaining articles.

Jim May 20, 2009, 12:55 PM

frugal mom,

Pam (the homeschool mom) said just a day before this that she wanted to conduct an experiment that replicated circumstances in which she had no choice but to try and feed her family for a week from the 99 cent store. So this, the supposed first day of the experiment, and she decided to back out. It was not a scouting mission or she would have said so prior to this. That is the problem I, and many of the people who commented, have.

Uly May 20, 2009, 1:40 PM

“As I pushed my sticky, purple and green cart into the store, past the jaundiced alcoholic asking for spare change, I was sorely missing those courtesy wipes that they have at the entrance to most supermarkets.”

Where the HECK do you live???

Anonymous May 20, 2009, 1:44 PM

The week was just starting and she was going back home and regroup and “sanitize” herself. Read the last paragraph. I think she is addressing the fact that people do think of the 99 Cent store as lower quality which is what makes the idea interesting, so cool your jets people.

Barbara May 20, 2009, 5:29 PM

Good grief! This young mother of three is simply trying to perform a service to others by investigating whether one can heathfully feed a family of five from 99 Cent stores. She attempted to make a dry subject more humorous and light hearted. You people should do your own experiments before attacking her. I, for one, will be following very closely and I appreciate her effort to educate all of us who need to practice frugality in these difficult times. We retirees also love a glimpse into the lives of young families. I say “You GO girl” and continue to educate and entertain us. Great job!

Jamie May 20, 2009, 8:25 PM

I am curious the store is dirty you can’t imagine eating any of the food there, but the vinegar is good enough to sterilize your childs medical equipment in?

I too find tthis as sort of a dig at lower class families. The store is dirty fine, but I don’t think that really over dramatizing the danger in eating the food there is called for.
I would love to know how much of that food is manufactured side by sided her “swanky” grocery food items, and just put in different packaging.

Brando May 21, 2009, 12:15 AM

HA, HA. I guess my family and I would look like savages to you. We shop there at least once a week. Toothpaste,Shampoo,Office Supplies,Frozen Food,Fruit(I don’t know what store you were at, but I’ve never had a problem with flies),Soda Pop,Snacks,and cheap toys and junk food for the kids. All for a buck each. Bada-bing Bada-boom, what else do ya want? Just a few weeks back I came home with a trunk full of pudding and cantaloupes, stuff was delicious. You gotta get over yourself, baby. Good Luck.

Meg May 21, 2009, 12:54 PM

Actually, you DO need to be careful shopping at dollar stores. There have been cases of dollar stores selling non-ADA toothpaste with fluoride levels through the roof ( Expired product can be an issue throughout the store.

Even if she weren’t aware of this, depending on the store you go to it can quickly become apparent. Some stores are dirty - while this isn’t a problem with canned food, it’s a stretch with baked goods and produce. So, checking the place out and mentally preparing herself for having to check labels was a smart choice that she made in the moment.

Some of you are making the argument that truly poor people wouldn’t have choices - well, I made 16k last year, supported myself and a dependent, while going to school with no loans. And I can afford to be careful where I shop. I like a combination of Aldi’s (for groceries) and the dollar store (for non-perishables). I buy almost no prepared food - it’s overpriced and unhealthy. We live on beans/rice/homemade soup which makes it possible for me to afford good produce.

A great resource are food ministries - you order a packet in advance, pay with cash/check/food stamps and then pick up all the basics for a weeks supply of groceries for 4 for $30. All that needs to be added is milk/produce/grains. So, 4 people under 50 dollars a week. It’s not the best food, but if the budget is tight it’s a way to buy meat and still have money left over for gas.

As another poster mentioned - dollar stores can actually be really overpriced. That’s where we should be sympathizing with the truly destitute - someone who can’t afford to drive or take a bus and has no choice but to go to the closest store. The dollar stores/convenience stores/grocery stores in very poor areas might offer low prices, but it’s much smaller quantity for much poorer quality. Where I pay 3.59 for a big bag of romaine lettuce at GFS or 1.50 for 9 oz of fresh spinach at Aldi’s, someone with no options gets a head of ice berg for 1.00. It’s cheap, but it’s not good value b/c that lettuce has little nutritional value.

Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now ;)

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