Sunday, April 1, 2007

Dollarama-rama

Can today’s average consumer find a good deal for only one dollar? Yes, no and maybe.

Product Review: Dollarama Dollar Store Products

Hello once again ladies and gents, please read carefully because this month’s review is a bit different – rather than focus on one particular product, I’ve decided to take a bigger bite of the cake and review for you a sampler of products that are available for sale at only a dollar (plus tax). The main goal will be to determine if it really is possible to get a good deal with just some spare change, and I think you’ll be surprised at the results. Read on...

Overview:

I always remember my father talking about the old “Five and Dime” store, where a nickel would land you a fistful of candy or the latest episode of your favourite comic book. Through years of inflation and evolution with global trade, the Five and Dime store has re-emerged of late as the Dollar Store: a fully-stocked world made up of mostly Asian imports where everything is priced at only a dollar.

One of the leading names in the dollar store chain category is Montreal-based Dollarama, a franchise with over 400 dollar stores across Canada with its greatest concentration in Eastern Canada (OK, a little counterintuitive geography-wise; wouldn’t the imported Chinese merchandise arrive at a western pacific port?).



The typical Dollarama store: your gateway to a plethora of made-in-china merchandise. Photo courtesy of www.scarboroughtowncentre.com

Dollarama offers a wide range of products in its stores, including everything from toys and home d├ęcor to food and office supplies. Each Dollarama store also has a small electronics section spanning approximately half an aisle. Don’t expect to pick up a stereo here, but there are some pretty nifty gadgets that are worth a look. I’ve chosen a sampler of products from approximately each category for review, so hopefully this will be of help for the average consumer who walks into the store looking for a deal. Here’s my listing of some good buys, a few so-so picks with mixed traits, and finally, some products to avoid.


BEST BETS:

iPhones

The “Electra iPhones” brand of ear phones get my first thumbs up. I was looking for a set of cheap earphones to keep in my gym bag so I can listen to my mp3 player while working out (I didn’t feel like ruining the stock pair of phones while bouncing and sweating away on the treadmill). Gladly, I was surprised for what this product delivered on the dollar.

Don’t be fooled by the name, this is no Apple derivative product, but the package does say “iPod compatible” and the colour scheme matches the Apply iPod product line fairly well. Whether this was intended as a rip-off (imitation) or is plainly smart design, it’s obvious Electra knew what it was doing and what it was aiming for.



iPhones: not related to the line of Apple products. I guess this would qualify as a distant cousin, twice removed.

Take the iPhones out of their package and the construction is sturdy and well-fitted. One shortcoming I’ve always noticed with cheap earphones is the cord – usually the wire gauge is very small and flimsy while the connector is not properly reinforced, meaning with enough bending and movement of the cord, the wires begin degrading and so does your sound. The good news is this is definitely not the case with the iPhones. First of all, the cord is of good length, measuring in at over 1m. This is important because not everyone uses earphones to connect to a player that is clipped to their belt or in their pocket; sometimes people like to hook up to a computer on their desk at work or to a stereo system while at home. The wire diameter seems robust enough to handle the wear and tear at the gym, and the 3.5mm jack has a large backing to prevent fraying of the wires at the joint.

The earpieces fit comfortably due to their shape, and there are foam covers included inside the package. There is no volume control on the cord, but this is usually not a problem if you’re using a portable player that will always be nearby. The sound is crisp and clear with no clipping, but you may need to turn up the volume if you want to exclude other ambient noises. You’re paying a dollar for this product: no noise cancelling technology here.

Overall, the iPhones earphones performed surprisingly well given their price, so much so that I picked up a total of three sets for use at the gym, work and in the garage. At only one dollar a pop, how can I go wrong?


Intruder Alert Door / Window Alarm

The Intruder Alert Door / Window Alarm is a small battery powered contact monitor that consists of two parts: a ringer which is mounted on a stationary surface such as a door or window frame, and a mating contact that is attached to a openable door or window. When the contact is pulled away from the ringer, a high pitched siren or a pleasant chime will sound (depending on the setting you choose.)



Door / Window Alarm: might not be too effective against a determined thief, but at least it’ll scare the bejebus out of an unsuspecting wife.

While I’m not convinced this device would actually be too effective against a professional home invasion (I just don’t see a really determined burglar being fooled by such a common and simple device… but hey, that’s just pessimistic me), what makes this product a winner is that it works as advertised and it’s a real deal for the consumer if picked up at Dollarama.

Step out of the dollar store and check out some other better-known electronics stores, and you’ll find a “home protection kit” consisting of four of these same devices in different packaging for sale at five times the price (that’s right, $20 for all you mathematical whizzes). I’m not joking folks, so please don’t waste your money. The Dollarama version works just as well, it comes with all the batteries you need (I like having products that are ready to go right out of the box), is of good quality construction and the self-adhesive installation strips hold on tightly even after several months.

If you’d like a little simple protection around the house, want a audible warning in case the kiddies get into the detergent cabinets, or want to play a prank on an unsuspecting roommate (rig up his bedside nightable drawer at the highest siren setting), this is the Dollarama product for you.

Arts and Crafts

Dollarama perhaps has one of the best arts and crafts sections outside of a specialized store. The prices are affordable, there is ample selection and the products seem of reasonable quality for their applications.

At Dollarama you can find anything from pipe cleaners to construction paper, beads, sparkles and stick-on googly eyes. Perhaps the professional scrapbooker would scoff at this, but by spending a few bucks here, you can keep your kids busy a whole afternoon. The quantities in each package are generous, and the variety is unmatched. Two big thumbs up here.

Party Gear

One day I went to the mall liquor store pick up a bottle of wine as a gift for the hosts of a friendly dinner party. Imagine my surprise when the cashier kindly refused to sell me a wine gift bag at four dollars, and instead told me to go next door and buy one at Dollarama. Sure enough, I found my bag and it was even nicer than the bland beige ones at the liquor store. Lesson learned.



Everything you need for a happy, happy birthday.

Dollarama is a must stop shop if you’re throwing or attending a party. Need a card, wrapping paper or ribbons? They got it for cheaper than Hallmark. Want hats, balloons, games and prizes for the kids? They got that too. Having a grown-up party and want disposable shot glasses, napkins and paper plates? Look no further - and all at cheaper prices than the supermarket. I’ve even seen brides and grooms-to-be clean out the store of confetti, streamers and wedding bubble blowers.

Office Supplies

While I would stay away from office tools such as paper trimmers and hole punchers (really cheap quality), Dollarama delivers on supplies like tape, staples (if not the stapler), paper clips, highlighters… even sturdy clipboards, coin rolls and portfolios.



Keep your home office well stocked without breaking the budget. You’ll find lots of affordable surprises at Dollarama. (This tape is even domestic-made)

Despite a few bad items (pencils: will be discussed later on) you would be impressed at what you can find. Another nice surprise was finding a roll of packing tape that was actually made in Canada. Talk about finding the odd one out in a sea of Chinese imports.


HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

Recordable CDs and DVDs

Another good deal are the recordable CDs and DVDs available on display in the electrical racks. While the price per unit is basically on par with buying a higher-quantity spindle on sale at Future Shop or Best Buy, it’s good to have an affordable option handy when you just need one. Depending on the Dollarama store and its particular stock, you’ll also be surprised at some of the brand names you can find.

Scissors

Would I use dollar-store scissors if I was a seamstress making wedding dresses? No. However these scissors are of fairly good quality and are definitely affordable.



Stay on the cutting edge of your budget with these sissors. (Get it? Cutting edge?)

Affordability is a good thing because at one dollar each, you can use these for a one-shot job and then throw them out after they’re finished. Ever cut out pieces of double-sided foam tape or self-adhesive backed coverings for shelves? You’ll know that after a few cuts the inside of your blades will be nicely coated with a film of adhesive that’s almost impossible to get off, rendering the scissors practically useless. Buy a pair at Dollarama and don’t ruin the high end scissors from your wife’s sewing kit.

Also, it would be a good idea in picking up some extra sets and leaving them around the house. If you’re like me, you’ve cursed your way back into the house realizing you need some scissors out in the yard to cut cord or string. Maybe you’ve even made that demoralizing trudge up from the garage to the kitchen for the scissors, only to find someone didn’t put them back in the drawer. At one dollar a piece, buy a few of these babies and keep them in the right spot. This way you have the convenience you need in the kitchen, garage and yard, while locking away that one pair of the high-end scissors elsewhere.


MAYBES AND TOSS-UPS:

FM Radio

Dollarama also sells a variety of small FM-only radios. While these radios can come in many different shapes, colour and sizes, the circuitry is always common. Each radio has a scan button to change the station, a volume control, and usually comes with a pair of earphones and batteries. That’s it, that’s all.

Reception is surprisingly good despite the antenna being small and built-in (you can see it on the see-through models). I was able to get fair reception in my garage but only so-so results in my basement. Batteries are included which is a plus, but the radio loses points in the cheapness of the earphones. The earphones have a wire gauge that is much too small to handle wear and tear, and basically are the perfect example of what the iPhones (see above) do so much better.

The radio can still be a good deal for light use (listening to some tunes while gardening in the back), but an upgrade to the iPhones would be recommended. Remember, there is no AM band so forget about tuning into talk radio.

Batteries

If your electronic product doesn’t already come with batteries, don’t worry – you can pick up a whole pack of them within arms reach. One word of warning though: battery life is not exactly the greatest, and this varies even between brands inside the same store. For example, AA-type batteries come in packs of four or six, yet there is a big difference. I wouldn’t recommend buying any of the six-packs as the batteries I saw in those packs weren’t even alkaline… and we all know no alkaline means goodbye long battery life.

The four-packs still provide a very affordable battery of reasonable quality, but you get what you pay for, so please remember there will be limitations in battery life and shortcomings in heavy-duty applications. Therefore, I would recommend these batteries based on their application only. Remote control? Go for it. Grandma’s pacemaker? Better off with the Duracells…

Plastic Containers

Dollarama stocks almost a whole aisle dedicated to plastic containers. You can find any shape or size, and you get value for your dollar as smaller sizes come in packs of 4 or 8.



From big to small, you’ll find what you need to lock up those leftovers.

This may just be Average Joe paranoia, but I only use the containers I buy here for storage and never for re-heating foods. I’ve heard too many claims of the potential risks of plastics leaking out small amounts of harmful chemicals when in contact with hot food. While I don’t have any hard evidence to back this up, I’m pretty sure if a container were to exhibit this behaviour, it would probably be the dollar store brand. For the cost of having to wash one extra plate, I’m not willing to take that risk.

On a more practical note, make sure you try the container lids (if possible) before you hit the cash register line as I’ve had issues with some tops being too loose and not closing properly.

Calculators

Unless you plan on launching a rocket to the moon, a calculator for a dollar is a good deal. Most Dollarama calculators are of fairly good quality and do their job well with respectable battery life. I recommend this item to all those students who aren’t allowed to use their $200 programmable graphing calculators on exams and need a back-up number cruncher (you all know who you are… using a screen the size of my TV to calculate 8 x 6).

What bumped this product out of my top rankings is that I found a lot of the designs were made as knock-offs of better known brands or were purposely deceptive.



Dude, where’s my solar panel? Average Joe gets duped by a piece of coloured plastic!

For example, I purchased a calculator with what looked like an integrated solar panel. Now technically the packaging didn’t say it was dual powered (solar + battery) but when the “panel” is displayed so prominently on the case, what was I supposed to think? My curiosity got the better of me when I got back home, so I took the calculator apart and found a piece of coloured plastic sheet where the solar panel should have been! What's the purpose of this apparently decorative panel? Why would the manufacturer do this in the first place? This is an intentionally deceptive design.

In the end, I blame myself for this one: I wasn’t careful, didn’t read the package and got fooled for not taking my own advice that I preach to others. You always get what you pay for, eh? I hate being right.


NO WAY!

Anything Electrical That Uses Household Current

This one is very serious, and I don’t just mean “Average Joe serious”, I mean consumer fraud serious. The issue here is that some low-cost Asian companies forge their UL and/or CSA electrical safety certifications in order to be able to import their product into North America. Of course, most of these low-cost items are destined to dollar stores, and I’ve seen too many recalls of lamps, extension cords and octopus plugs for forged UL certifications.




If you really want to buy these at the dollar store, please don’t be fooled – ALWAYS look for the UL symbol stamped on the product (not just the packaging) and ensure there are no deviations in the logo (oversized lettering, inconsistent line weights, etc). Photo courtesy of Underwriters Laboratories.

The worst recall that affected Dollarama was for counterfeit UL ballasts on compact fluorescent light bulbs. There was a risk of electrical shock and the potential of being a fire hazard. (For more details, please follow the link at the bottom of this post.)

Does this mean that anything electrical you buy at Dollarama is going to burst into flames? Of course not. What worries me is that Dollarama does not seem very well suited in fighting this type of dangerous imitation, and has therefore lost my consumer confidence for buying electrical products. They still stock products of unknown manufacture and unknown origin, and there is no real first line of defence if I have any concerns. Go to their website and there is no email, customer service line or contact address. Who’s going to answer me if I feel the product is dangerous… the 16-year-old girl earning minimum wage behind the counter?

My recommendation is don’t try to pinch pennies when it comes to safety – wait for a sale at a more specialized store and buy a product made by a reputable manufacturer.

Tools and Hardware

Except for maybe picture hangers and tape, buy your tools and hardware at a real hardware store. I wouldn’t even recommend most of the products I’ve seen for recreational use.

For example, the worst product in the category by far was a set of Duramax drill bits. I know that no contractor or handyman in his right mind would ever buy his drill bits at a dollar store, but I was curious as to why Dollarama would even stock this type of item.

Not surprisingly, the quality was questionable at best. I made a hole using a drill press with the .250” diameter drill and ended up with an opening of almost .300” measured with my calliper. Those must be some pretty loose manufacturing tolerances back at the factory.



I never thought I’d see the words “brass coated drill bits” and “industrial quality” used on the same packaging.

While most drill bits have a protective coating that increases tool life and finish (usually titanium or something of the sort), the colour you see on these bits is a thin plating of brass. Yes, that’s right – brass. While most companies will coat their bits with harder materials to reduce tool wear, Duramax apparently tried the reverse psychology route. A coating material this soft has no real functional purpose and seems to be simply a visual gimmick. Now I didn’t expect these drill bits to be coated given the price, it’s just that I don’t appreciate having a product designed in a way that seems to be intentionally misleading (see my previous comments on the calculator).

In the end, I wouldn’t even recommend buying these to drill through cardboard. To be honest, the pliers, mini screwdrivers and such weren’t all that bad, but the fact is you can wait until there is a sale and pick up a better quality item for only a few dollars more at a real hardware store… and most importantly get better choice as well as that lifetime warranty and customer support too.

LED Light Products

If you want to see some of the tackiest products available, take a look at the light-up LED statues, keychains and other gizmos available at the dollar store. From what I can recall, some products have improved from previous versions, but I’ve found that most of these come up short in terms of quality (buttons and switches that don’t work too well, lights of inconsistent luminosity). There is also some exaggerated advertising for some products - whatever you do don’t even dream of replacing your mini Mag-lite for a one-LED keychain as you’ll be left in the dark. Fun toys, but not very practical.

Pencils and Pencil Crayons

I have never seen pencils so brittle and cheaply made in my life as the ones stocked at Dollarama. The worst by far are the sets of pencil crayons (think about it – 18 coloured pencils for only one dollar?).



Leave these on the shelf and save that dollar for a lottery ticket. It’ll be better spent that way.

The lead snapped clean off after applying light drawing pressure. Sharpening the pencil broke the lead another three times. By the time I finally got a sharp point, I began shading the sky in my drawing and the lead snapped again within seconds. Similar results with the rest of the pack.

For the pencils where I did manage to get some colour on the paper, I was outright disappointed as the colour was very weak, unevenly applied and inconsistent in texture. Truly a waste of my money and my time.



Final Verdict:

The average consumer can find a pretty good deal at Dollarama, but can walk away disappointed, be ripped off or downright scammed if they are not careful.

What do I mean by that statement? You have to understand that the product you are getting costs only a dollar, and on a good day is worth only that much. Walk into the hardware section looking for ty-wraps or tape, not a hammer or drill bits. Focus on getting deals on disposable on light use items (wrapping paper, plastic plates) not things that you want to last wear and tear for years (extension cords, screwdrivers).

Another point is to realise that you may have to work harder to find what you want or to let some things slip in order to get that marvellous one dollar deal. Your shopping experience may not be up to par with other stores you may already be accustomed to. To break it down for you:

You may have to search for things: Dollarama’s stock varies from store to store and even within the same store given the day. You can buy ten today and then never see the product again.

You have to forget about post-sale customer support: the return policy is non-existent - replacement may be an option depending on the store and the mood of the manager. Many manufacturers of the products are unknown, unspecified or unbranded on the product, and the retailer basically assumes no responsibility unless forced to (i.e. UL recalls). Don’t even dream about 30-day warranties on electronics like radios, lights and fans.

With this being said, Dollarama is the place to go for bargains on items that you can live without and/or aren’t relying on for their quality (“if it breaks, I’ll just throw it out and buy another one”). If you have this expectation before walking in, you’ll come out a very happy customer.

Pros:

• Wide variety of products (great for one-stop shopping)
• Well stocked and quick product turnover
• Easy to navigate stores - aisles and groupings of product make sense
• Prices are known up-front (only exception is chocolate bars)
• Good value products if you know what to look for
• Convenient locations

Cons:

• No debit card payments for those large purchases (actually, four Dollarama stores are currently testing this payment method, we’ll see what happens)
• Large variation in stock between stores
• Warranty? … Return policy? … What are those?
• Re-stocked items can vary from the originals
• Lots of junk mixed in with the good stuff - shop carefully


In summary, Dollarama and the whole dollar store genre can deliver some good bargains for the consumers if they are careful, but I will reiterate again: don’t expect to get more than you pay for. For this reason I’m doing my ranking based on presumed consumer expectations:

If you know what to buy at Dollarama:

Average Joe’s Overall Rating: 8 / 10

If you expect to have the exact same quality but at 10 times cheaper than the going price:

Average Joe’s Overall Rating: 1 / 10




Info on Dollarama is … well, not really available. If you would like to see what may possibly be the Internet’s most useless website, please check out:

www.dollarama.com

(No really, I’m not kidding – it’s just a picture of one of their stores. There is no store locator, no contact info … nothing!)


For more info on counterfeit UL markings, such as with compact fluorescent light bulbs, please visit the Underwriters Laboratory website at:

www.ul.com/media/newsrel/nr062905.html