Scandals That Shook Dollar Store Aisles

Dollar stores have always been a popular choice for low-income shoppers, but recently, these ultra-budget chains have become a far larger part of the grocery landscape. Three dollar chains in particular — Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General — have grown faster than nearly any other retailers in the U.S., opening thousands of new locations over the last couple of years. That's good news for underserved communities, right? Perhaps not.

While offering name-brand products for a value price sounds consumer-friendly on paper, these chains have a history rife with scandals. From countless safety violations to concerning levels of hazardous materials in their products to associations with particularly unsettling public health and social trends, dollar store chains may not be as helpful as they look. Whether dollar stores are truly a blight on poor communities or merely a symptom of a larger issue, there is no denying the sheer volume of bad situations they've been connected with. Maybe they're not bad places to grab a pair of sunglasses or a quick snack all the time, but regardless, we must address some of the most shocking scandals that have plagued the dollar store industry.

Dollar stores have contributed to food deserts

For those who don't know, a food desert is a region where fresh, healthy foods are unavailable due to economic or geographical limitations. The existence of food deserts is one of the major crises of modern society, and dollar stores have greatly exacerbated this issue. They contribute to the problem by saturating the market in underserved communities and pricing out full-service grocery stores that would otherwise stock more whole fruits and vegetables. This leaves the local residents with very few fresh, healthy food options since dollar store chains typically only stock processed foods.

Dollar General and Family Dollar have tried to combat this phenomenon by introducing fresh produce into their stores, but this is currently only the case for a small percentage of stores, and selection is limited. Elsewhere, the issue is serious enough that in 2019, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, passed an amendment to prohibit further dollar store openings in an attempt to prevent the worsening of food desert conditions. As it stands, this is an ongoing controversy with no sign of a solution in sight.

Stores were fined for selling expired medication and motor oil

A recurring theme of these scandals is that dollar stores have been accused of cutting costs in order to maintain a profit — apparently, the big three have all compromised the freshness of their products at some point. In 2019, investigators in the office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James discovered expired drugs on the shelf in Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General, netting massive fines for all three companies. Dollar General was also fined for selling obsolete motor oil. And these are just the cases that got the stores reprimanded.

There have been plenty of other examples of dollar stores selling expired food that didn't elicit a response from authorities. For instance, one customer reported spotting a freezer full of two-year-old frozen pizzas at an unnamed dollar store chain in Ohio. But if anecdotal evidence isn't enough to prove how widespread of an issue this is, the fact that all three of the major dollar store chains have been busted selling expired products should certainly be cause for concern.

Dollar stores have been a hotbed for violent crime

Dollar stores are a surprisingly dangerous place to shop. Between the fact that they are common in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods and the fact that their minimal staffing makes them an easy target for theft, dollar stores see a disproportionate amount of violent crime. It is reported that more than 200 violent incidents involving guns occurred at Family Dollar or Dollar General stores from 2017 to 2020 alone, nearly 50 of which resulted in deaths (via ProPublica). And this figure only accounts for gun-related violence. The overall figures are likely higher.

Though you can't directly blame dollar stores for attracting violent crime, there is a big enough link between the two that it suggests some level of negligence on the part of these chains. In spite of the obvious issue of violent crime, you aren't likely to see security at most dollar store chains. That's exactly the kind of expense that low-margin stores can't be expected to make. An activist group called Step Up Louisiana has identified several changes that Dollar General can make to promote safety in stores, including creating a new safety-focused staff position and allocating more hours and employees to stores so that no employee has to work alone.

The big three have had widespread OSHA violation complaints made against them

Yet another way that discount retailers can cut corners to boost profits is by piling stores as full of merchandise as they can get. This leads to blocked emergency exits, inaccessible fire extinguishers, and evidently, hundreds of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations. Dollar Tree and its subsidiary Family Dollar have collectively accrued over 400 OSHA violations and paid $13.1 million in fines since 2017 (via Reuters). Dollar General has been imposed $21 million in fines following 240 investigations for reported OSHA violations since 2017 (via OSHA).

While no corporation has a perfect track record for worker safety, the considerable volume of OSHA violation complaints made against the major dollar store chains has drawn outrage from both customers and employees alike. Additionally, the fact that this is an issue for all of the big three chains indicates that these safety concerns are endemic to dollar stores in particular. Those low prices may be tempting but they shouldn't come at the expense of anyone's safety.

Dollar General has been called out as a terrible employer

In addition to the fact that dollar stores have often failed to protect their employees from on-the-job hazards, these stores have earned further scorn from workers by offering low pay and understaffing their stores.

One former employee who managed a Dollar General in Detroit, Michigan, in 2013 recounted having to work 70 hours a week on average in order to complete all of her expected tasks — and for a salary that was only slightly higher than that of the employees she managed (via HuffPost). This isn't an isolated incident, either. It is indicative of the average managerial experience at most dollar stores.

When the manager of a Dollar General in Eliot, Maine, quit in 2021, the rest of the store's small crew of employees were expected to run the store in their stead. This led to a walkout by the whole staff. They punctuated their exit with a few hand-written signs in the store's window. Grocery store employees already have it pretty rough, but it is clear from the abundance of testimonies from former workers that dollar store employees have it even worse.

Family Dollar had to close 400 stores because of a rodent infestation at a distribution center

If you think that the average Family Dollar stores look a little run-down, just imagine what their distribution centers look like. Stories from these kinds of facilities rarely reach the public unless they are truly appalling. Like when a serious rodent infestation at a Family Dollar distribution center in Arkansas led to the temporary closure of over 400 stores across six states.

This issue was brought to light following a consumer complaint to the Food and Drug Administration in 2022. When the FDA inspected this facility, it reported finding more than 1,000 live and dead rodents, as well as evidence that they had been gnawing through and nesting in stored products. A review of the company's internal records further revealed that more than 2,300 rodents had been collected from the site in 2021, indicating that this infestation had been going on for an appalling amount of time (via FDA).

Following the closure of the impacted stores, Family Dollar issued a voluntary recall of all drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, dietary supplements, and food products to prevent the possible spread of hazards like salmonella. Thankfully, there were no reports of customers developing salmonella. Still, it is fair to say that this fiasco could be remembered as a major breach of trust between Family Dollar and its customers.

Dollar stores sold products with concerning levels of hazardous materials

Dollar stores sell products at extremely low prices, but that creates higher potential for compromises to be made on items' quality and overall safety. Most discerning customers are aware of this; however, customers may not be aware of just how many dollar store products exceed the safe level of hazardous materials set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

An independent study in 2015 revealed that 133 of 164 randomly selected dollar store chain products tested contained at least one hazardous chemical above levels of concern (via The Campaign for Healthier Solutions). That means 81% of products tested had concerning levels of lead, phthalates, polyvinyl chloride plastic, or other hazardous materials.

Exposure to such chemicals is linked to an increased risk of asthma, cancer, lead poisoning, and learning disabilities. Considering that this is an ongoing issue with all three of the major dollar store chains, it's bound to send health-conscious shoppers who can afford it to shop elsewhere.

Dollar Tree raised its prices past the dollar mark

In most contexts, inflation is a regular part of life in the modern consumerist world and, therefore, far from scandalous. However, even the smallest price increases in the dollar store industry have the potential to harm families living in poverty. That is why many shoppers across the country got angry when Dollar Tree finally raised their prices beyond the dollar mark in 2021.

Admittedly, Dollar Tree was the last of the big three chains to raise their prices, as both Family Dollar and Dollar General were already selling items priced over $1 prior to 2021. But when Dollar Tree raised the price of most of their items to $1.25, it changed the absolute price floor at which most goods could be sold. It also betrayed a promise from Dollar Tree chief executive Michael Witynski, who claimed that the dollar price was here to stay only three months before this change was announced.

Customers were upset, and rightfully so given that this price change flew against both Witynski's promise and 35 years of brand identity. One Twitter user commented, "Something about that $1.25 got me wanting to boycott Dollar Tree." Another Twitter user wrote, "Dollar Tree being $1.25 Tree is still not sitting right with me." However, those who rely on these budget retailers to survive are in no position to boycott or protest these stores. Instead, they simply have to deal with the 25% price increase.

Dollar General was sued for listing false prices on the shelves

As if publicly raising prices wasn't already scandalous enough, Dollar General has recently come under fire for covertly charging customers more per item at the register than what was originally listed on the shelves. The chain was sued by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost in 2022 when 20 stores in Butler County were caught exceeding the legal margin allowed for price differentials.

"Ohioans can ill-afford businesses that draw people in with the promise of low prices only to deceive them at the checkout counter," said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. "This seems like a company trying to make an extra buck and hoping no one will notice. We've not only noticed but are taking action to stop it."

Investigators with the Attorney General's Office found that between 16.7% to 88.2% of products showed a higher price at checkout compared to the price advertised on shelves. The Ohio Department of Agriculture permits stores to have a max overcharge error rate of only 2% (via Ohio Attorney General).

And while the company was thoroughly fined for its mistakes, there is a reasonable chance that this is still a persistent issue in other states and counties. That's why you should always double-check the prices at dollar stores.

The stores have tricked customers with unusually small portions

We have identified countless examples of items that are regularly a worse deal to purchase at dollar stores compared to a normal grocery store. This is because dollar stores commonly offer products in comparatively smaller portions. For example, one source reported that in 2017, an Aldi's brand bag of potato chips was nearly twice the size of a dollar store brand, and it was only slightly more expensive at $1.49. Additionally, many canned foods can be found for under $1 in department stores like Walmart and Target, while dollar stores charge at least $1 for the same product.

The issue is only worse when a dollar store sells name brands. Breakfast cereal is a great example. A 3-ounce bag of Lucky Charms is $1.25 at Dollar Tree, while a 29-ounce bag of Lucky Charms is $5.48 at Walmart. That's 40 cents per ounce versus 18 cents per ounce. For those who can afford to buy cereal in bulk, Walmart is the clear winner. All this said, dollar stores have competitive prices for non-food items. If you aim to save money, you should always do the math.

The big three got busted for selling weak vitamins

Not only do dollar store products have smaller quantities and lower quality, but they are also less potent at times. Major dollar store chains have been called out for selling multivitamins that test to have a different amount of nutrients than what is listed on the label. This was confirmed by Consumer Reports, which sent secret shoppers on dozens of trips to mostly big-chain dollar stores like Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar. The source didn't clarify which chains specifically sold the weak vitamins, but it is plausible that all of the big three are guilty.

Unverified dietary supplements pose a risk to customers because it is unknown if they were made safely and according to industry guidelines. Additionally, if their dosing is not consistent, it is possible that some units could have harmful levels of some ingredients. It is best to only purchase vitamins from companies that have gone through voluntary verification agencies like USP or Consumer Labs.

One Dollar Tree store rocked the boat by attacking Gen Z

Like plenty of other grocery store chains that are "too big to fail," Dollar Tree has come under fire for participating in some old-fashioned discrimination. Most recently, one store in Bremen, Indiana, made local news when a store owner included a tirade against Gen Z on a hand-written help wanted sign. The handwritten sign read: "I apologize for us closing AGAIN. My 2 new cashiers quit because I said their boyfriends couldn't stand here for their entire shift. Don't hire Gen Z's. They don't know what work actually means. NOW HIRING! *Baby Boomers ONLY, thanks!"

Thankfully, the manager lost their job over this fiasco, which sends a clear message from Dollar Tree that the manager's opinions do not align with the company's values. At least one confirmed Dollar Tree shopper didn't agree with the manger's message, either. 

"You're going to get people from every group who are lazy and work hard," regular customer Lindsay Berger told WNDU. "I'm sure when baby boomers were young, they were probably also called lazy, and it just keeps going on from generation to generation."

However, the fact that Dollar Tree gave a somewhat high-ranking job to an individual with apparent bigoted tendencies reflects poorly on the company. This blow comes especially hard considering that younger people who make less money are the exact kind of customers that dollar stores aim to attract.