Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Dollar Stores
November 20, 2023 2:27 AM - Season 10, Episode 18 - Subscribe

This week.... Fox Business asks Fabio for opinions on the Israel-Hamas war. The House passes a bill to prevent a government shutdown before the end of the year, but was also marked by multiple congresspeople insulting and even threatening each other. And Now: You'll Never Guess Where Fox's Pete Hegseth Went To College. (Princeton) Main story: Dollar stores, specifically Dollar General and Dollar Tree (which also owns Family Dollar), and how terribly they treat their employees. Dollar General has been called the worst retail job in America. Often a single employee runs the entire store at a given moment. The median Dollar General employee makes $18,352 a year. The piece finishes up with a trademark fake promo for a store called "Dollar Bucket." On Youtube. (22 minutes) Finally, an update on the New Zealand Bird of the Century poll, their sponsored bird, the pūteketeke, won the poll with over 22 times the votes that the second-place finisher, the kiwi, got. The organization that ran the poll was Forest & Bird, who are selling metal sculptures of the winning bird (with a removable John Oliver that can ride on its back) at the site metalbird.com. Last Week Tonight is off next week.
posted by JHarris (9 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I knew dollar stores were crappy, but didn't realise that they were a horror show.
posted by Marticus at 1:31 PM on November 20, 2023 [3 favorites]


Caught the Dollar Store monologue on YouTube. Obviously the place looks mismanaged, but editorial facts always seem cherrypicked for effect. Like, it should be pretty obvious that downscale establishments do more business in recessions, in the same way upscale ones fare worse. It should also be pretty clear that Dollar Generals mostly operate in rural areas, and concentrated in the south, so the % earning below $15/hr stat is unsurprising to me, prevailing wages (and rents) are lower than where Oliver is in NYC or where I am in SFBay.

From the front matter of Dollar Store's 10-K for FY23, we get 19,147 stores, 170,000 employees. 2.145 billion in profit works out to about 12 thousand dollars in profit per employee per year. That's more or less the size of the opportunity for worker wage gains, though probably you want to trade off a bit of the profit for job security to shareholders looking for that risk premium. I'm honestly surprised it's that high, as usually retail margins are low. Taking another glance, it looks like they are getting there with debt financing, and that's gonna rock their world in FY24.

In fact, the most recent 10Q shows interest payments are now double versus last year. The report also calls out credit swaps, meaning in May 2021, they agreed with a bank that the bank would cover the interest payments on some debt, and they would the bank LIBOR at over time. Well, LIBOR was 0%-ish then and is 6%-ish now.

The front matter also explicitly calls out labor as as a risk. While it says unionization may raise costs, it might be worth it depending on how expensive random staff walkouts are. It's easier to negotiate with one union than 170,000 employees. The US workforce participation rate is only now reaching where it was in 1980, which, coupled with record low unemployment rates puts labor in the drivers seat. It might even be a challenge for labor organizers, if people can literally walk across the street to a competitor's now hiring sign for additional wages and signing bonuses.

Basically, it looks like the economy threatens this company on three interrelated fronts:
- inflation
- interest rates
- labor shortages

It's not exactly a Ponzi scheme but they are definitely on borrowed time. Management doesn't appear to be blind to the store upkeep problem and has launched a rebranded, upscale version of them they're calling "pOpShelf." Never seen one, google maps suggests it's mostly in Dallas / Fort Worth, which I assume was their test market. Ratings all in the 4.6+ range, which is a full point better than Dollar General, so it's at least working on that front*. As best I can tell from the reports, these stores avoid food ("consumables") entirely. But I doubt these stores will ever launch in the rural food desert towns DG is "famous" for.

It seems likely these stores will be closed down over time, an artifact of the low interest decade.
posted by pwnguin at 2:22 PM on November 20, 2023 [3 favorites]


There's an updated version of a Dollar Store around here called Five Below, where everything's supposed to be $5 or less, but they've already broken that with a section of the store where things max out at $10, and most of the electronic stuff is back there now. Also, most "dollar stores" around here have never adhered to the $1 gimmick, and the only one that did, a Dollar Tree, now prices everything at $1.25, which is awkward.

I have a dollar store story myself. I drive Doordash at times (I know it's horribly exploitive, it's a bit of a story, I have a whole strategy for doing it) and once had a delivery from this specific Dollar General. It was a "Shop and Deliver" order, where you're expect to go into the store, find all of the items on the shelves, then take them up front and pay with a special credit card they call a Red Card. The process tends to be slightly different at different stores, and some want you to scan a special code, sometimes into the app, sometimes to have the employee scan a code in the app on the store's register.

Well, this was one of the times where it wanted me to scan the code from the app into the store's computer. For some reason the employ was extremely unhelpful. She refused to scan the code, completely! Said her manager had told her not to do it, like it was a standing policy they had. At first I misunderstood that she was saying she personally couldn't but I could at self-checkout, so I said I'd do that. She was silent... and then the self-checkout turned out to be closed. I said that I was at an impasse, because the app wouldn't let me continue unless the code was scanned, and then, an extraordinary thing: she asked me to leave the store and threatened to call the police for some reason.

So I had to leave the store, with the shopping there at the register, and go outside, to call Doordash support and tell them I couldn't complete the order and why. I've rejected orders from that store since. I've noticed that they also tended to be closed at odd hours with Now Hiring signs up, so I suspect they had sudden walkouts too. It was all so odd, I've never had that experience at another store.
posted by JHarris at 10:36 PM on November 20, 2023 [5 favorites]


I discovered tonight that there's a current Black Friday special where you can get six months of Max for $2.99 a month. I jumped on it, so I should be able to continue making Last Week Tonight posts for a while longer!
posted by JHarris at 2:47 AM on November 21, 2023 [7 favorites]


most "dollar stores" around here have never adhered to the $1 gimmick

Many years ago, here in England, Woolworths used to operate on an "everything for sixpence" pricing policy (that's six pre-decimal pence or 6d). My father, born in the 1920s, could recall teapots being sold there for 6d. If you wanted the lid as well, that was a separate item, so you had to pay an additional 6d for that.
posted by Paul Slade at 4:50 AM on November 21, 2023 [5 favorites]


A few days ago I stumbled upon a bunch of fun "decorate using Dollar Tree hacks" DIY Youtube videos. I checked them all out because I do like that kind of crafty DIY stuff.

Then I saw this piece on the Dollar Tree stores.

And then I noticed something about the "decorate using Dollar Tree hacks" videos - they were all white ladies who owned their own homes.

I'm going to go back to a lot of those videos and simply post a link to John Oliver's video in their comments.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:07 AM on November 21, 2023 [4 favorites]



Well, this was one of the times where it wanted me to scan the code from the app into the store's computer. For some reason the employ was extremely unhelpful. She refused to scan the code, completely! Said her manager had told her not to do it, like it was a standing policy they had. At first I misunderstood that she was saying she personally couldn't but I could at self-checkout, so I said I'd do that. She was silent... and then the self-checkout turned out to be closed. I said that I was at an impasse, because the app wouldn't let me continue unless the code was scanned, and then, an extraordinary thing: she asked me to leave the store and threatened to call the police for some reason.


How bizarre. I'd be tempted to work there for a week, just to see how far I could get abusing the customers.

Here in L.A. we've had the 99¢ Only Store that's actually pretty good. They stuck to 99¢ only for a surprisingly long time, but around 10 years ago, some items started going $1.99, $2.99, etc. I think that was around the time the founders sold the company. Then after covid, the floodgates really opened. Last I heard, the business isn't doing so hot, which is a pity, because it had been a reasonably decent and cheap store.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:14 PM on November 21, 2023


So it looks like Daiso, the one hundred yen shop chain from Japan, is trying to enter the US market. I think they mainly sell the same things they sell in Japan but they and all the other hyakin chains (there are four main ones) in Japan have introduced more and more products above 100 yen (technically 110 yen now with tax). Daiso has it's own side brand called "Threepy" which is 300 yen and above. But I don't think anyone actually goes to the Daiso for their daily needs on a regular basis. It's for when you need some quick office supplies and you don't need a whole ream of A4 paper. Or some party goods (it's been Christmas goods since the last week of October) or maybe a USB cord for when you go traveling and don't care if you lose it.
posted by LostInUbe at 3:28 AM on November 24, 2023 [1 favorite]


Management doesn't appear to be blind to the store upkeep problem and has launched a rebranded, upscale version of them they're calling "pOpShelf." Never seen one, google maps suggests it's mostly in Dallas / Fort Worth, which I assume was their test market. Ratings all in the 4.6+ range, which is a full point better than Dollar General, so it's at least working on that front*. As best I can tell from the reports, these stores avoid food ("consumables") entirely.

There are Popshelf (however they do that lettering) stores in NC, where I am. I've been twice. They have a standard array of non-essential goods, more pleasingly arrayed than a dollar store (they do seem more "upscale" than a dollar store, yes, but also seem like things that came out of a giant pallet from the same factories.) There was lots of snack food and candy and maybe some drink cases.
posted by 41swans at 6:16 AM on November 24, 2023


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