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Wal-Mart gets run for its money

By Stephanie Rosenbloom
New York Times / May 3, 2009
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Wal-Mart may have become the premier place to shop for Americans struggling through a severe recession, but the giant chain has competition nipping at its heels.

The nation's dollar stores are suddenly hot. They are busily opening new stores, outfitting existing stores with refrigerators and freezers, and sprucing up their aisles with better lighting, fresh paint, and new signs.

And while most big retail chains are closing stores and radically cutting back on new outlets, the dollar chains are planning to open hundreds of stores this year in some of the best locations to which they have ever had access.

Dollar stores have long had a reputation for being down-at-the-heels places to buy cheap, generic goods. While keeping their low prices, they are revamping their image and climbing the respectability ladder - in some cases into the Fortune 500.

Dollar General, long one of the 500 biggest American companies, appears on this year's list at number 259, up 15 places from last year. And Dollar Tree landed on the list for the first time, at number 499. Those rankings are a far cry from Wal-Mart Stores, which holds the number two position behind Exxon Mobil, but some dollar chains these days are growing faster than Wal-Mart.

Richard Russell, a healthcare worker for an assisted-living community in East Northport, N.Y., said that even people who can afford to pay $5,000 a month for their parents to reside in the community are shopping at the local dollar store.

"You go to the supermarket and you buy eggs and milk, and your money's shot," Russell said recently while shopping at Family Dollar as he pulled a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, 85 cents, off the shelf.