10 Things You Should Buy at Discount Stores (And 6 Things You Shouldn’t)
Who among us hasn’t burned a good chunk of the day wandering the racks of a T.J. Maxx or Marshalls, searching for the next item that might truly surprise us?
You might go in looking for one thing and come out with quite another, but it turns out that there can — and, perhaps, should — be a method to the madness. There are certain items you absolutely must buy at discount stores and others that you should probably avoid.
Although discount department stores are a big business in the United States, their annual sales have actually been relatively steadily descending since 2001, according to Statista. In 2022, sales at discount department stores totaled $101.8 billion, slightly down from 2021’s $102.2 billion.
But make no mistake: Americans love their big-box sale stores. Roughly 89% of more than 3,000 U.S. adults surveyed said they shop at discount retailers, per 2018 National Retail Federation research. About 50% said they shop at stores like Ross or T.J. Maxx. Whether respondents made under $50,000 or more than $100,000, the percentage of those who shopped at discount stores remained largely the same. Shoppers were most likely to buy clothing, groceries and home decor and furnishings.
Here’s the rub: Consumers are so motivated to get a good bargain that they don’t really care about the rest of the retail experience. More than 75% of respondents said they did not expect to be able to purchase online with in-store pick-up, free two-day shipping, product reviews or an “entertaining” shopping experience — all they really wanted was a low price.
Where Do Discount Stores Get Their Merchandise?
This begs the question: Where do retailers like Ross and T.J. Maxx even get all the merchandise they sell? One might expect that the vast majority are department store castoffs, but in reality, these stores have honed a patchwork of strategies to get the largest amount possible of the cheapest merchandise.
That includes relying on the unsold inventory of department stores and stores that sell clothing, home furniture and electronics, which totaled more than $112 billion in May 2023, per U.S. Census Bureau data. When manufacturers make too much, have canceled orders or update an outdated design, discount retailers can also capitalize on those opportunities, according to CNN reporting. Some large department stores and manufacturers even create liquidation marketplaces where buyers for discount retailers can bid on surplus items, per CNBC.
The items T.J. Maxx and Marshalls sell are not necessarily from last season. In fact, parent company TJX executives have said that roughly 85% of the store’s merchandise is current season and only 5% is “irregular,” according to Mental Floss. Part of that can be chalked up to flexibility. While department stores need to buy various sizes and styles in bulk from manufacturers, T.J. Maxx has the option to buy little by little each week.
What Should You Buy at Discount Stores?
So what’s worth it at discount stores? Not all items are made equal. And it’s not just price that should be taken into account but quality and durability of the items available. Sure, you may be able to get a dresser, let’s say, for cheap at Marshalls, but how long will it actually last? Here are our suggestions for items that will come to you at a discount — and last a while.
If you’re anything like us, perhaps you abscond almost immediately to the back of a T.J. Maxx or Marshalls, searching for office supplies. There’s no such thing as too many pencil containers.
But don’t just go for the cute items. Think household staples, like Scotch tape and masking tape, experts tell U.S. News and World Report. The prices may be cheaper, but it’s also important to note their relative size. Make sure you’re getting an item for the same size as competitors but at a lesser price.
Having trouble reading the fine print? It may be time for you to get reading glasses and we know where to get a stylish and inexpensive pair. U.S. News and World Report’s sources say you can generally find pairs between +1.0 and +3.25 diopters, the measurement used for a prescription.
I can personally vouch for T.J. Maxx and Marshalls’ phone cases — I’ve bought many a case there and they are nearly identical to what you might find at the name brands. A search of the store’s website reveals phone case options from designers as luxurious as Gucci and Bottega Veneta, with prices from $19.99 to $134. But an in-store search will certainly yield cheaper options and other brands.
Need to stock up on some items for man’s best friend? Discount retailers have you covered. Blogger Krazy Coupon Lady (as reported in Business Insider) notes that the pet section has toys as cheap as $2 and dog beds under $25. She even says their prices are frequently cheaper than Walmart. Online, we spy cat scratchers, dog chews and pet gates for competitive prices.
Who doesn’t want to spruce up their towel collection and introduce a new member to the linen family? At T.J. Maxx, you can buy sets of towels from Vera Wang, Laina and Brooks Brothers for prices between $29.99 and $39.99. The Budget Babe suggests buying Egyptian cotton—you’ll get it for the best price there, she says.
You know when you’re trying to organize your winter sweaters or your old papers and can’t stand the sight of yet another plastic bin? Discount retailers are the place to get decorative baskets and storage containers to keep everything housed in the right place—and looking stylish while doing so. We’re a fan of this $29 Viet Seagrass storage basket.
Aside from towels, The Budget Babe loves getting her pillows at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. She says consumers can get a high quality pair of pillows for as little as $20. Whether you want decorative pillows that read “Good Vibes Only” or an extra set for your guest bedroom, you’ll likely be able to find something that doesn’t break the bank.
Picture frames are a staple in any home and a great way to house either art or your family’s favorite photos. But they can be pricey. That’s why buying a frame from a discount retailer is a good way to get a high-quality item without paying the market price. Frames online start as low as $9.99.
Many of us have gotten to that point where you buy a new article of clothing and realize you have nowhere—and nothing on which—you can hang it. At Marshalls or T.J. Maxx, you can find a wide range of aesthetically pleasing—and better for your fabric—velvet hangers at low prices, per The Budget Babe. A better product for less? Sign us up!
For all those addicted to office supplies and elegant stationery, we implore you: get your notebooks at a discount retailer. Not only will you have a cute selection to choose from, but the prices will surprise you.
What Shouldn’t You Buy at Discount Stores?
For avid fans of HomeGoods, TJX’s home-themed outpost, this one might upset you. But experts caution not to buy heavy-duty furniture like nightstands or dressers from T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Some products may end up at the store because of reduced quality, like failed inspections, according to USA Today’s Reviewed.
The kitchen section at these stores is usually extensive and full of all the objects your kitchen lacks. Beware the cheap price tags: while you don’t need to buy the absolute best whisk, you probably don’t want to buy the absolute worst one. And since you’ll be using these tools almost every day, it may make more sense to invest.
Yes, there may be a section full of charming yoga mats, but don’t get tempted. Much like kitchen supplies, if you are a card-carrying yoga practitioner, you’ll be using your yoga mat most weeks—most days, even. Based on USA Today’s Reviewed, T.J. Maxx’s yoga mats simply won’t last and are too flimsy for a regular yoga practice.
Although towels are a good buy from discount retailers, that other popular linen — you know, bed sheets — may not be. If you want sheets with natural fibers like cotton and linen, you won’t find them easily at T.J. Maxx, according to Business Insider. While the name-brand sheets may cost less and look good on the shelf, they won’t have the longevity you need.
The problem with discount retailers like T.J. Maxx and Ross is that the merchandise always looks good. But that doesn’t mean it can go the distance. As The List explains, a bathing suit needs to be made of durable material to tough it out in the sun and the sand. You may want to shell out full price for that.
The beauty section at discount retailers can be so tempting—how do they have the entire MAC special edition palette or Lancome mascara? But there’s so much we don’t know about who has handled the products and where they have come from. As USA Today’s Reviewed says, previous customers may have already used the products as a sample. Do you want to be slicking on lipstick every day that’s already been worn by someone else?
Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine and the Tampa Bay Times.