September 19, 2008
Bargain Hunter 99 Can Buy a Lot Store May Be a Money-Saver, but Not Everything is a Real Bargain
By Julia Scott
I'd never before been tempted to shop at the 99 Only Store. Me buy groceries and goods from a one-price-fits-all store? Not a chance.
I wanted to know how the company sells merchandise so cheaply, if the grocery prices are really that good and if the food is edible.
For shoppers whose mantra is "You get what you pay for," quality is a major source of concern.
The 99 Only Store buys surplus and discontinued merchandise, closeouts, items bearing old labels and orders canceled by other retailers, said Eric Schiffer, CEO of the Commerce-based chain.
But at 99 cents -- a price that is going up by nearly a penny at the end of the month -- even rejects have appeal. Most of what the chain buys is made in the United States, Schiffer said, although some items come from England, Canada and China.
In most cases, the chain buys directly from the manufacturer. Certain items are made just for the chain, hence the 32-ounce milk and juice containers you don't see in other stores.
And while competitors may sell a dozen brands of toothpaste, for example -- each with varying size, tube and cap options -- 99 Only may only have four choices. This allows them to buy in bulk at lower prices.
The store does try to sell one brand name in each category so customers can buy a familiar product, Schiffer said. Off-brands fill the rest of the shelves.
Food and produce typically has a short shelf life because it's already ripe or nearing expiration, having been purchased from another store that could not sell it.
"The values are so tremendous that people understand that our watermelons may be good for five days and at the market it's seven days," Schiffer said.
So eat food immediately or freeze it. For other items, use your best judgment about the quality and check expiration dates.
The perception is that 99 Only Stores are a cheaper alternative to traditional retailers, but I wanted hard numbers before converting.
I pulled out My Nitty Gritty Grocery List with the best prices for 35 staple items, but immediately ran into trouble.
The Canoga Park store I visited has a limited grocery section, and I found just 10 of the items on my list.
Four of those were low-price leaders (black beans, lettuce, green peppers and eggs). Four others (bread, sugar, onions and carrots) tied with the lowest prices I found at Trader Joe's, Food 4 Less and Fresh & Easy.
Two -- milk and chicken broth -- were more expensive per ounce at the 99 Only Store.
And some items that were not on my list were so cheap they had me talking out loud. Guerrero-brand corn tortillas, Act II buttered popcorn, and oversized containers of dried basil and ground cinnamon each were -- as the store promises -- 99 cents.
Other food items I purchased turned out to be a good deal, including four delicious peaches for 99 cents and three green peppers for 99 cents.
I did see one smashed and moldy eggplant in a produce bin and I threw out three of the eight garlic heads I bought because they were either dried out or rotten.
Other items were more expensive than at mainstream markets. Six packs of ramen noodles were $1, but can be purchased 10 for $1 on sale at a traditional grocer. A 1.25 liter bottle of Crystal Geyser seltzer is 10 cents cheaper at Trader Joe's.
All in all, there are deals to be had at the 99 Only Store. But not everything is a fabulous price.
99 cents and edible?
With food prices rising dramatically, expanding grocery sections at the 99 Only Store have generated a buzz. But is the food any good?
I put their cheapo groceries to the ultimate test by cooking a dinner with 99 Only Store ingredients and serving it to Hubby. For recipes, I turned to Christiane Jory, a Los Angeles native and author of "The 99 Only Stores Cookbook."
Jory is not affiliated with the company, but began shopping there to save money so she could pay off $20,000 in credit card debt.
Like me, Jory was initially a skeptic.
"I was introduced to the store by a friend," Jory told me. "I didn't believe it either."
An early convert, she spent two years cooking and eating 99-cent food while writing the book, which has caught the attention of "Good Morning America" and NPR's "Day to Day."
By shopping at the 99 Only Store before going to other grocers, Jory said she's reduced her food tab by one-third.
The cookbook has dozens of recipes, most of which cost less than $10 to make. I chose two to test -- jambalaya and curried chicken, but the Canoga Park store I visited did not have the ingredients for either. Instead, I cobbled together a meal of frozen mini-tamales, garlic broccoli and fettucini.
The pasta was fine, the broccoli had a bug in it (to which CEO Schiffer replied, "I think you can find the same bug in any store.") And the tamales were so salty they were nearly inedible.
With a frown I ate two. Hubby ate one.
At the Culver City store the next day, I found enough ingredients to make curried chicken and I picked up three bottles of 99-cent wine.
I got the onions, almonds, garlic and canned whole tomatoes and chicken from the 99 Only Store. I already had the other ingredients in my pantry.
I served the dish over fettucini because I didn't have the patience to make fresh nan, as Jory recommends. The final result looked appealing and was good enough to serve to friends.
I went back for seconds. Hubby did not. The wine -- 2001 Tierra Salvaje Cabernet Sauvignon, a kosher vintage from Chile -- was nothing to write home about but perfectly suitable for sangria or as a second or third bottle.
All in all, I would advise shopping there with a discriminating eye. Stick to the best bargains on items you know you will use, and don't go overboard. Even 99 cents can add up.
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