Sheryl Huenster is a self proclaimed dollar store junkie. The Clifton mother of four makes the trek to various fixed price stores within a ten mile radius of her white clapboard home two or three times per week.
“I’m an addict. I admit it. I can’t go more than a week without visiting the stores, unless I’m on vacation. You better believe that when I go to the Jersey Shore I know where the all the stores are in the Toms River area,” she laughed.
Years after the close of Woolworth’s and other “Five and Dime” stores, dollar stores are filling the void by opening up around the country, but they seem almost ubiquitous to New Jersey. Many of the stores are operated by immigrants who have a knack for buying low priced goods overseas and having them shipped to the U.S. to sell for a dollar a piece. Like Woolworth’s, the dollar stores carry “sundry” items such as hair brushes, small picture frames, toothpaste, games, toys, etc., as well as harder to find items that the more upscale stores don’t carry.
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Ice cube trays, magnets, gift bags, flags, paper, coffee mugs, staples, paint brushes, hand cream, eyeglass cases, candles, soap, are some of the things that Sheryl keeps an eye out for. “I found a baster yesterday for my Thanksgiving turkey. I use it just once then I toss it. It is far easier to replace a baster than trying to clean the darn thing!”
Elise Brookings of Wayne is another dollar store fan who visits her favorite store at least twice a week. “I go to the store on Hamburg Tpk. You have to go back often as the stock changes all the time; once an item is gone it is rarely seen again.” Elise navigates the store’s aisles with a shopping cart which is quickly filling with gift bags, wrapping paper and what she calls stocking stuffers. “Playing cards, figurines, books, these are some of the items my kids will find in their stocking this year. Most of the stocking stuffers will be things I find in this store; I’ll go to CVS for the candy, but for little else.”
Not all the stores prove to be successful. A store in Haledon and another one in Paterson have closed within the past year, while stores in neighboring towns have opened or expanded. Shoppers will tell you that it isn’t always the location, but the type of inventory carried.
Jan Chavez of Bloomfield is very selective in choosing which stores to visit. “I can tell almost immediately if a store will be a success or not. If they sell items I could get at the Giants Stadium flea market it won’t work out. Too common and not worth the dollar; I can find the same items discounted at my supermarket.” The diminutive woman with toddler in tow added, “When I visit dollar stores I want a real bargain. It should be something that would have sold for several times the amount originally or would still sell for much more than a dollar if sold elsewhere.”
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Store manager Pava, who works at one of the area shops, said the reason that his store is so successful is that the store’s buyer travels throughout the Far East making purchases directly. It may seem odd to send a buyer so far away for items that sell for so little, however the store is making money and a quickly turning inventory is what keeps bringing the customers back.
Indeed, store owners count on shoppers like Sheryl and Elise who make multiple visits to sustain them. Pava added, “Nobody buys just one item, they buy in bulk. Just this morning a teacher came in and purchased 26 toys. She plans on giving them to each of her students for Christmas.”
If Sheryl, Elise, and Jan are the atypical customer, than Pava’s shop and those like his should be considered a raging success. Judging by the lines at the three open registers and the inventory on hand, his shop will probably be around for a long time. “We will be opening a second store next year in the Morristown area. It’ll be even larger than this one”, concluded Pava as he excused himself to go to a nearby counter to help wrap up glass dishes that were just purchased.
With a full parking lot and clerks constantly replenishing inventory, the successful dollar store will be an important part of the suburban scene for years to come. Woolworth’s may not only be gone, it may soon be forgotten.
This article originally appeared on Townstead.com, a defunct site managed by Matt Keegan. It was part of his “Life in New Jersey” series of articles.