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The buck stops there

DOLLAR STOP: Independent dollar store in Peterborough works to compete against major chains

‘You want to earn a dollar?”

Susie Reeves has her hands full. For the past hour, she’s been busily multitasking behind the counter of the Dollar Stop in Peterborough — ringing up purchases, chatting with customers, answering the phone, and, when she gets a minute, filling up purple helium balloons and tying them one by one. Now, though, she’s run out of hands, so she asks Lexi Faircloth, 11, of Peterborough, to help an elderly woman carry her groceries to her car, in exchange for $1.

“Sure,” Lexi replies, taking the plastic bags and heading for the door. Lexi, whose mother works in the same plaza at 1 Jaffrey Rd., is a regular at the Dollar Stop. Here, that dollar will buy her any item in the store, but at the new chain dollar stores popping up in towns across the region, a dollar doesn’t always go as far.

Dollar General, a national chain that has generated some controversy in its push into local towns such as New Ipswich and Bennington, uses what Reeves refers to as a “multi-price point” model, charging different amounts for different products. According to the corporation’s website, about a quarter of the items in a given store will cost $1. Rather than making the one-dollar model its hallmark, Dollar General focuses primarily on convenience, the site says: stores only carry the most popular brands of everyday items like toilet paper and laundry detergent, and the average shopping trip clocks in at under 10 minutes.

Competing with the chains

Susie Reeves, who opened the Dollar Stop three years ago with her husband, Richard Reeves, doesn’t think her store competes directly with chains like Dollar General, because rather than striving for convenience of a corporate chain, it serves a particular market and clientele.

“We can’t compete with them, but we can be different....In this town we play a role, we have a niche, of small party supplies,” including balloons, cards, and novelties, she explains. “We also are here for the elderly; it’s a huge elderly community.” Fittingly, at this moment, she’s interrupted by an elderly customer asking about an item. “Need me to reach it for you?” she offers.

Staying afloat as a locally owned dollar store isn’t easy. the Reeves stock their store at trade shows, including ASD Las Vegas, from which they’ve just returned. Because they operate an independent store, Susie says, they have to “go through a middle man,” whereas many corporate stores import products directly from China.

She also says the store has to keep its overhead costs at a bare minimum. “We only have one phone line,” she elaborates. “We don’t have a lot of bells and whistles...[or] signage.”

The Dollar Store employs only two additional people, one at 25 hours per week and the other at 17 hours per week.

“It’s not very glamorous,” Reeves says of her job as store manager. “You’re the ones unloading the trucks; you’re the ones that are here on your hands and knees scrubbing the floor.”

A first-name basis

Still, despite the financial difficulty of operating a local small business, Reeves takes pride in her store. When the Dollar Stop opened, “[we were] completely independent of everybody — it was just my husband and I,” she says. The couple, who live in Rindge, had originally planned to start the store in their home town, but when they learned that a Dollar Tree was already in the works for Rindge, they decided they didn’t want to compete with it and opened up in Peterborough instead. There, they work to meet the specific needs of the community.

When asked about the store’s role in a small town, Reeves chuckles, “In a small town? This small town?”

She and her husband have tailored the products the store carries to requests they’ve gotten from customers. For example, they carry needles and thread, because “in town, there’s really no place to get a thread and needle,” she says. She pauses again to help another customer, whom she knows by name.

$1 per item, forever?

Even with her close connection to the community the store serves, Reeves doubts the Dollar Stop will be able to continue charging $1 for every item indefinitely. “Right now, the way that we are, we can stay novelty,” she says. “It’s hard....There’s going to be a time that it’s not going to work.”

Reeves says the financial pinch of the recession made dollar stores seem like a sensible option for shoppers whose disposable income is lower than it used to be.

“Things like birthday parties, cleaners, that you’d pick up for three or four dollars at the grocery store, you’re going to start thinking about. That’s where dollar stores come in.”

Still, she says, costs for stores are significant, in part due to testing that needs to be done on goods imported from China, and in part due to the dollar’s falling value and the resulting increase in tariffs. At some point, she thinks, she’ll have to charge more than a dollar for certain products, including balloons. “Balloons are hard to keep at a dollar,” she says, because helium prices are rising.

For now, though, the Dollar Stop maintains its one-dollar-per-item model, and Reeves has another concern: space. As of April, she and her husband have been negotiating for a 5,000 sq. ft. space in the same plaza. Space also presented a challenge to Dollar General; when the corporation proposed a new 9,100 sq. ft. store in New Ipswich in July, the town rejected it, saying it was too large for the downtown village district. But where Dollar General was striving to meet its nationwide goal of 625 new stores, the Reeves are only hoping for some elbow room.

“It must be nice,” Reeves says, to have corporate funding and the profit from other stores to fall back on. “I just want to move next door.”

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