State of the Cheap, 2001-2011

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.

Duffy's in 2008 in their Cherry Valley location (a former Goretti's location)

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?

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7 thoughts on “State of the Cheap, 2001-2011

  1. Brad Wyatt says:

    I love driving down history lane with these old stores like Duffy’s, The Fair, Spag’s, etc.

    Maybe I’m just cheap, and that why I relate 🙂

  2. Sprout says:

    Any predictions for Worcester’s retail future over the next 10 years? Cheap or otherwise.

    • Nicole says:

      Observation regarding thrift stores: The selection of thrift shops in Worcester is better now than in the ’60s — back then, most folks bought new … and only occasionally. They made things last with good care & repairs, so not much made it to the charity shops. The only reason that the selection is better now is because we’ve become such a throwaway culture.

      As the New York Times reported, thrift stores are booming in this economy. (The whole article is worth a read, though it’s NYC-focused.)

      If the economy continues to be poor, I do wonder whether we’ll begin to see (even more) competition for donations. But more on that for another post — I’ve been thinking a lot about donation boxes lately.

      Regarding retail in general: Businesses — retail or otherwise — aren’t coming to Worcester unless they think there’s at least tacit acceptance from local government & its citizens. In Worcester you’ll not only get tacit acceptance of dodgy businesses, they’ll actually be welcomed with open arms and sometimes tax breaks. Because we’re all about fluffing up the perceived tax base, whether it be with poorly financed start ups (real or imagined), big box stores that kill off local businesses, or housing developments in a market that’s already saturated with empty homes & buildings.

      What we experience in Worcester isn’t unique, but I am getting really tired of seeing a CVS on one corner and a Walgreens on the other every five blocks or so. I’m hoping (against hope) that when CitySquare happens there will be a place (ideological and physical) for smaller businesses that have personality.

  3. Lee says:

    Thank you for these posts!

    I still miss Spag’s – the real Spag’s, the old Spag’s – back when Spag himself was still alive. After he passed and the daughters took over, there were carts(!) and, heaven help us, bags! So many blame the big box stores like WalMart. But Spag’s changed both their stock and their attitude. That was what really did them in. Sigh…

    Traveling out Route 9 to Spencer will bring you to Klem’s. It’s not Spag’s – never claimed to be – but there is an honest, home-spun quality about the place which we really like. Are the prices dirt cheap? No, but they’re competitive. That plus being a local independent store gives it an added value.

  4. elmparkblogger.blogspot.com says:

    a) Middle class folks who have cars and the means to drive to these places can save money. But the folks who HAVE to use the WRTA or walk don’t have as many choices. I often think about that when I take my long walks in and around downtown Worcester.

    b) Traveling across the USA it is clear–from coast to coast that many older strip malls have a lot of dead stores.

    c) When I was on the road, I met the guy who owns/runs the mall where Home Goods is in Westborough (he’d married into the Julio Liquors family), he told me how a GROCERY STORE was key to getting that mall back into shape. His was Stop and Shop. I now always look at the anchor stores to see if a mall will take off or not.

    d) How can you write a story like this and not mention dollar stores? Dollar stores are not just limited to low income people–according to the WSJ. if anything, Worcester has a wider array of choices.

    e) As for the free section of Craigslist and similar websites–The folks I see who abandon items (like furniture) tend to be the ones who no longer have the space or the means to move the item. Or the place they are moving to is smaller than their present living space.

    e) back in the old days of the early 1970s, CVS’ first local store was –I think!(can someone verify this?)–on Main Street across from the Hanover Theater. One thing I noticed there was the carpeting: heavy rubber, designed to withstand lots of foot traffic. I have since then recognized –and perhaps in a weird way, admired–how stores like CVS have highly developed methods for maximizing the profit-by-square-foot method. Unlike Spags, CVS has a system for retail;ing that is ssophisticated, measureable and can be transferred to similar cookie cutter stores across the country.

  5. jmstewart says:

    there was a non-pharmacy CVS where there is now a Papa Ginos in Webster Square. Thats where I found out Orr and Esposito left the BRuins

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