Consumer Protection

The Trouble with Dollar Stores

Cheap goods come with a price.

By Bryan Washington March 30, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Not that we were ever really in love with dollar stores, but Yudith Nieto has turned us against them forever.

She met us in Bohemeo’s, an artsy coffee bar on the East End—and after touching on weather, parking, and the usual Texas pleasantries, launched into the point of the thing: phthalates. About how they can be found in the dollar stores’ vinyl products, and our bathrooms, shower curtains, and floor runners. Then it was on to the other hazards—traces of lead in kids’ toys; chromium in earrings. In point of fact, Nieto seemed to have a dangerously unhealthy knowledge of dollar stores, but we did not say this to the 20-something, not while she was telling us about the billions of dollars that dollar stores reap, how disproportionately their products are consumed by our city’s poorest.

She paused for a breath. “Sorry,” she smiled. “I know it’s a lot.”

While Nieto volunteers for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services—TEJAS—an organization committed to improving quality of life for all, she’s especially concerned for the East End, her own neighborhood, where supermarkets are few and far between, and residents are held hostage by discount merchants like Family Dollar, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Dollar everything. TEJAS has gone to battle on two fronts, Nieto told us. They’re trying to convince a bargain-loving public to demand better-quality goods (“people think they’re saving up front, but they’re paying for it all later on down the road”) even as it advocates for corporate responsibility in the dollar-store industry.

Nieto and company count the Campaign for Healthier Solutions among their allies. In February, they released a report, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” claiming that 81 percent of the 164 dollar store products the group tested contained at least one hazardous chemical (49 percent had two). Although the CHS didn’t test food items, they also blasted stores for their preponderance of unhealthy, processed snacks, and packaging containing bisphenol-A—a chemical linked to early puberty, obesity, and breast cancer.

Just before the report’s roll-out, TEJAS held a press conference in the parking lot of the Family Dollar on Harrisburg, which, incidentally, sits down the road from a Less or More Dollar Store. It was a frigid Wednesday, and while Nieto and her colleague Dee Trevino spread fact sheets across a folding table, a small group of friends held a CHS poster for whatever traffic cruised by. A handful of loiterers poked around their display, intermixed with friends and family, but that was it. Media coverage proved equally frustrating, with a camera crew from a local TV station shooting half-hearted segments on Trevino (at one point, they asked her to line up some of the offending products on the concrete for still shots).

Looming in the background—beyond the smog and the railways and the sidewalks littered with bottles—sat the Family Dollar itself. We decided to take a look inside the battered building adorned with fading brick. Nothing we saw even remotely resembled fresh vegetables or a butcher’s offerings: just half-empty aisles lined with soda cans, candy, and cardboard boxes. And the rest of the store felt just as despondent, populated with acres of plastic and Styrofoam, shrink-wrapped silverware in unlabeled packages, and cheaply made action figures from last year’s blockbusters.

But we also noticed party stuffers, school supplies, and sunglasses lining the aisles. And where else, honestly, can you find those for a buck? For a moment, we couldn’t help wondering whether Family Dollar was part of the problem or someone’s idea of a solution, however feeble. And while some of the offerings were clearly inferior to those you’d find anywhere else, the set-up wasn’t vastly different from that at Walmart or Target. Who was testing their products? we wondered. It seems like we’re all at the mercy of a marketplace that needs more regulation. The only difference is that some of us have more choice in the matter than others.

“We’re connected by the air that we breathe,” Nieto told us back at Bohemeo’s. “Rich and poor.” Somewhere, someone is making decisions for us, some of them life-and-death. But they’re invisible souls, faceless, and “they don’t have the residents in mind.”

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