Dollar stores — discount retailers that charge about a dollar for each item — are popular in this tough economic climate. But not everything they stock is a good deal. Some dollar-store products are poorly made, and others could be purchased elsewhere for a better price.

Steep inflation in recent years has made it difficult for dollar stores to provide as much as they once did for $1. These stores really can’t raise their prices — they wouldn’t be dollar stores if their merchandise cost more than $1 — so they must resort to subtler ways to charge more, such as reducing the quality or quantity of their goods.

Example: A dollar-store package of paper napkins that once provided 100 napkins for $1 now might provide just 50 or 75… or it might include 100 napkins made from lower-quality paper.

GREAT BUYS

A dozen products that tend to be excellent deals at dollar stores…

Cleaning products. Cleaning solutions, clothing detergents, furniture polish and other common household products often cost less at dollar stores than anywhere else.

Exception: Dishwashing liquid. Dollar stores typically sell name-brand dishwashing liquid in 11-ounce bottles. You can find 32-ounce bottles at supermarkets for as little as $2, a lower per-ounce price.

Dishes and glassware. To find these at $1 per piece at other discount retailers, you would have to purchase prepackaged sets of 16 to 30 dishes or glasses. At a dollar store, you can buy only what you need. Quality and styling are comparable to what you would find at Wal-Mart.

Gift wrap. A roll of gift wrap might cost $5 at a stationery store or $3 at a standard discount store. A dollar-store roll is a deal if it contains at least the standard 12.5 square feet of paper. Dollar stores also sell colorful gift bags that can be used instead of wrapping paper. The $1-per-bag price is a fraction of the $2 to $5 you would pay elsewhere.

Greeting cards. Most dollar stores offer nice greeting cards at two for $1. Comparable cards can cost $3.50 each at other retailers.

Grooming tools. Dollar stores often stock basic manicure sets that include nail clippers, tweezers and cuticle scissors, all for $1. These items are likely to cost at least $1 apiece anywhere else. Emery boards, hairbrushes and hand mirrors also are good dollar-store buys.

Kitchen accessories. Dollar stores offer a wide range of kitchen implements, such as ladles, spatulas, dish racks and can openers, that typically cost several dollars or more elsewhere. Dollar-store kitchen tools generally are reasonably well-made, but don’t expect fancy extras, such as ergonomic grips.

Exception: Avoid dollar-store kitchen knives. The low-quality blades dull quickly.

Mops, brooms and scrub brushes. Don’t expect to find a large push broom for $1, but if all you need is a simple broom or mop, you won’t beat the dollar-store price.

Picture frames. Most dollar stores stock a wide variety of picture frames up to 8×12-inch and occasionally even larger. Quality is comparable to frames costing several dollars or more at other stores.

Plastic storage bins. Many dollar stores feature a selection of stackable plastic storage bins and small plastic garbage pails, bargains at $1 each. Don’t expect to find large storage bins or garbage pails, however.

Holiday decorations and party favors. Most retailers offer great deals on seasonal merchandise only during end-of-season clearance sales. At the dollar store, you will find holiday decorations and other seasonal goods at $1 apiece when you need them.

Example: Christmas tree ornaments for $1.

Simple tools. Tools are much cheaper at the dollar store than the hardware store. With most tools, it makes sense to pay extra for higher quality, but with certain basic tools, dollar-store quality is good enough.

Examples: All-metal 10-inch claw hammers… 16-foot measuring tapes… pliers… and putty knives.

Socks. Dollar-store socks often are just as good as department store socks that cost $2.50 per pair or more.

DOLLAR STORE DON’TS

A dozen product categories best avoided at the dollar store…

Baby food. Most baby food sold in dollar stores is perfectly fine, but some has been found to contain trace amounts of dangerous chemicals. The savings are not worth the risk.

Bagged candy. You’ll get more for your money if you purchase economy-size packages of candy at a discount store, such as Wal-Mart.

Batteries. Target and Wal-Mart usually offer better deals on batteries, assuming that you are willing to buy in quantity. If you need four or fewer batteries of a certain size, dollar-store deals could be competitive. Buy only name-brand batteries.

Bottled water. Dollar stores typically sell water in packs of four 16.9-ounce bottles for $1, which is 25 cents per bottle. Similarly sized bottles of water can be purchased at Wal-Mart, Costco and other discounters for less than 15 cents per bottle if you buy in cases of 24 or 35.

Children’s toys. Dollar-store toys often break easily. They even can be hazardous (if the broken pieces are small enough for a child to swallow). Some dollar-store toys, including toy jewelry, contain lead.

Better bets: It is safe to buy coloring books, name-brand toys and toys for kids old enough to know not to put them in their mouths.

Disposable plates, cups and napkins. You are likely to find better deals on paper, plastic and Styrofoam kitchen items at Wal-Mart or other discounters, assuming that you buy them in large quantities. Better bet: Dollar-store cloth napkins are a good deal, though perhaps not high enough quality for when guests visit.

Extension cords. The low-quality extension cords like those typically sold at dollar stores can short out or even cause fires.

Off-brand food. Food packaged by obscure food companies could be of poor quality, or it might be sold in smaller-than-standard quantities, meaning that it is not really the bargain it seems. Food from well-known companies might be a good deal, but make sure it isn’t past its expiration date.

Pet food and toys. Pet food from obscure manufacturers might lack nutritional value or even contain unsafe ingredients. Off-brand pet toys might be made with chemicals dangerous to animals.

Better bet: Pet collars and other pet items that will not go in the pet’s mouth can be good deals.

Resealable sandwich bags. A dollar store might sell a box of 13 resealable sandwich bags for $1, a per-bag price of eight cents. You could find the same bags for less than five cents apiece if you bought them in larger quantities at Wal-Mart, Target or similar retailers… or as little as two cents apiece at a discount club, such as Costco or Sam’s Club.

Toothpaste. Dollar stores typically offer 2.5-ounce tubes of name-brand toothpastes for $1. Discount stores offer lower per-ounce prices on larger tubes. Supermarkets and pharmacies might offer better deals, too, if you wait for sales. Dollar stores sell larger tubes of off-brand toothpaste for $1, but dangerous ingredients have been found in some off-brand toothpastes. They are not worth the risk.

Vitamins. Studies of off-brand vitamins, such as those sold in dollar stores, have found that they don’t always deliver the vitamin content that they claim.