The past decade or so has been one of ups & downs for bargain hunters. Whether you’re looking for inexpensive clothing, discount general merchandise or low-cost foodstuffs, central Massachusetts has been on a bit of a rollercoaster this past decade.
We’ve seen the rise of second-hand “thrift” shops from places where the folks on the lowest economic rungs bought society’s iffiest cast-offs becoming places where middle class folks shop for items that may only be barely (if ever) used. The Salvation Army shop downtown having moved from its run-down location on Blackstone St. now occupies a nicely rehabbed factory building on Cambridge St. Goodwill has a modern shop on Park Avenue, and two Saver’s stores have set up within the city. With the addition of Craigslist & Freecycle, numerous smaller thrift shops, and the proliferation of consignment shops (especially in the Canal District), there are now lots of places to get cheap or free household goods & clothing. The past decade has been mostly good for thrifty shoppers of such items.
These past ten years have witnessed the departure of several area bookstores, both small & large. Another Story book shop near Webster Square and Tatnuck Bookseller on Chandler Street both closed their doors in the past decade, and more recently Ben Franklin Books and Borders have also exited the scene. There are a few book shops left (Annie’s Book Stop and Beech Tree being closest), but they’re fighting a losing battle for business against the better selection & prices available online from places like ABEbooks.com and Amazon. This decade now gone by may be a mixed bag for book-buying consumers, but has certainly been bad for local book sellers.
In the realm of general merchandise, smaller local stores have gone under in recent years while national “big box” chains like Walmart & Target have mopped up their customers. We’re left with prices & selection that, though reasonably good, are bland. Gone is the quirkiness of a Spag’s or the no-frills deals offered by The Fair. If you want an eclectic mix of merchandise & better-than-average prices, a place like Ocean State Job Lots, Building 19 or Big Lots are your best bet.
In the area of groceries, we’ve got tons of choice if you don’t mind being ripped off regularly. Small grocers of the past like Iandoli, Fortin’s or Goretti’s have been replaced with larger, expensive chains like Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Big Y & Price Chopper, each of which require shoppers to carry a loyalty card in order to claim whatever meager savings are on offer each week. As something of an antidote, the past decade has seen the arrival of Price Rite & Aldi, which offer cheaper prices . . . but with less selection than their competitors. More recently, Wegman’s has arrived in Northborough, and although cheaper than other grocers in the Route 9 corridor east of Worcester, are still relatively expensive.
For bargain grocery shoppers in central Massachusetts, the loss in 2008 of Duffy’s Discount left a void that has yet to be filled. For many years Duffy’s had operated in an old mill building on the Worcester side of the Worcester/Leicester line on Route 9, and later moved down the street to a former supermarket building in Cherry Valley. Duffy’s was a retail outlet run by grocery supplier Millbrook Distributors in Leicester for the purpose of selling off overstocked grocery goods and items whose expiration date was approaching. About 4 years ago, Millbrook was bought by United Natural Foods, which promptly shut down Duffy’s. United Natural Foods does run a few small outlet shops at some of their many warehouse sites for such overstock/expiring goods as were sold at Duffy’s, but not at the Leicester facility they acquired with Millbrook Distributors.
It’s possible to find some such foodstuffs at Building 19, but with the closure in 2011 of their Grafton Street location, your chances of finding a good deal on something you need are effectively halved. The selection at the Shrewsbury store was never a mirror image of what was on sale at Grafton St. — a trip to both stores on any given day was likely to net you a noticeably different cartful from either store.
Ocean State Job Lots, with locations in Southbridge & Westborough, does offer some deals on canned & dry goods, and the selection is better than Building 19, but you’d best know what prices are good ahead of time — not everything is a bargain at OSJL. (Ditto Big Lots, with locations at the Greendale Mall, and in Milford and Fitchburg.)
The shopping landscape has changed a lot since the turn of the 21st century. We’ve now got lots of big-box supermarkets fleecing us for our grocery dollars; big-box super-centers selling us a bland assortment of goods that are only cheap because they’re manufactured in low-wage countries; and big-box book stores selling us a bland assortment of hip-for-the-moment bestsellers along with over-priced hot beverages in their en-suite cafés.
What’s a thrifty Yank to do if he or she wants selection & good prices? Are there any stores/markets not mentioned above which offer better-than-average prices and/or better selection?