WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Dollar stores are either a place to snatch up bargains, or a money-waster.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Dollar stores are either a place to snatch up bargains, or a money-waster.

It's all in your perspective, and your self-control. Common sense tells us not to fill a cart with stuff we don't need. But there are deals to be had.

Who can resist a Jif Peanut Butter To Go three-pack for $1, that's $3.99 elsewhere? What about Scrub Buddies, a two-pack but slightly smaller knockoff of Mr. Clean's Magic Erasers which go for $2.49?

''Every time I come here with a budget, I always go over it," said Anthony Allen of Lake Worth, Fla., while recently shopping at Dollar Tree in West Palm Beach.

Allen, who works for another retailer, was eyeing the scads of Christmas decorations. He plans to buy the $1 ornaments to make his own wreath, rather than pay $34 and up for a pre-decorated wreath.

Seasonal decorations and party supplies are among the most popular items in dollar stores.

Pay attention to quality, check labels and stick with national brands. What Dollar Tree calls its "million dollar brands" include Ultra laundry detergent, Ajax dishwashing liquid, Renuzit air fresheners, Lady Speed Stick deodorant, VO5 shampoo, Campbell's soup and many others.

Watch out for products with labels that mimic name brands, but aren't, such as as Enregin brand cleansers with the same colors and label style as Neutrogena's products.

Consumers browse for items they typically buy at a regular grocery store, and save money, a study by The Hartman Group Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., found. While 42 percent of shoppers go to dollar stores more than once a month, consumers are more likely to buy food and beverages elsewhere.

Hartman's definition of dollar stores includes Dollar General and Family Dollar, which have merchandise that's more than $1.

David Wright, Hartman's senior manager, marketing, said those two retailers and Dollar Tree are planning to open more than 1,500 new stores in the U.S. in the next year and remodel many existing stores.

''The channel is growing because shoppers are interested in discount shopping, which now includes a growing assortment of foods and beverages, the 'treasure hunt' that they believe such stores provide, and because the stores can be located in diverse locations ranging from urban to suburban and rural," Wright said.

Convenience, with stores small enough to zip through quickly, parking usually right outside the door, as well as low prices draw customers of all income levels.

About half of people with household incomes of $150,000 a year or more say they shop at dollar stores, a recent survey of 2,000 adults by Chicago-based Mintel found.

Trinkets for party favors are another favorite of dollar-store shoppers.

''I come here for treasure box toys, and party favors," said Dayree Gonzalez, a West Palm Beach mother of two. She especially likes the coloring books and flash cards.

Liesette Heyden of Lake Worth loves the cleaning supplies, shampoo and soap, and finds the holiday decorations a lot of value packed into $1 each.

What about those name brands? Is the Crest toothpaste sold at Dollar Tree really Crest? A Procter & Gamble representative said yes, it is, and if not specified otherwise, it is made in the U.S. Anything made in a foreign country must be stamped with that information.

Candy is another big draw. Some people buy it before heading for the movies, where it costs much more.

Some items are less than a dollar. For example, the greeting cards are two for $1 and the Libby's canned vegetables are 79 cents for a 15-ounce can.

The gift bags, similar to those that cost as much as $5 in other stores, come in a wide variety of sizes, styles and colors.

Which dollar store items are the best buys and which are a waste of money?

Here's a brief list we compiled:

$1 Hits: -- 80 cotton cosmetic rounds, $2-$3 at drug stores. -- 80 Mead brand security envelopes, $1.89 for 50 at supermarkets. -- Betty Crocker brand silicone spatula, as much as $5 on Amazon.com and eBay. Looks like people are buying them at the dollar store and re-selling. -- 20 hair elastics, $2-$3 at drug stores. -- 8.4 oz bottle of Martinelli's Sparkling Red Grape Juice that sells for $3.47 elsewhere.

$1 Misses -- The Halloween-themed solar lights are cute, but the light they provide is insignificant. If you need a solar light, get something bigger -- unless you are an ant. -- The Sunbeam batteries have terrible consumer reviews, with many people reporting they don't last long. They are made in China. Stick with made in the U.S. brands such as Energizer, Duracell and Rayovac. -- Lil' Bear Honey Flavored Syrup, 8 oz. We hate to say it, but this made-in-the-USA product is deceptive. It's packaged in a honey bear-shaped bottle. Here are the ingredients: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, honey flavor, natural and artificial color. It would be easy for someone to mistakenly grab this bottle, thinking it is honey. Buy the real thing somewhere else. -- Jumbo crayons made in Thailand. There's a reason why Crayola has been around since 1903. These crayons don't do the job. -- The four-piece manicure set is basically a joke, with scissors that won't cut fingernails. Don't waste your money.

That said, even Good Housekeeping says the cleaning supplies and paper products sold in dollar stores are a good value.

BargainBabe, a women's lifestyle website devoted to saving money, started out with list of "10 things you should always buy at a dollar store," and following reader input, the list grew to 67 items and counting.

Among the items people recommended are cotton swabs, clay flower pots, double-sized tape, paper clips, waxpaper and aluminum foil, holiday decorations, mailing labels, shaving cream and candy.

Susan Salisbury writes for The Palm Beach Post. Email: susan(underscore)salisbury(at)pbpost.com.

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