What is a Variety Store?

Cassie L. Damewood

A variety store sells a wide range of small, low-cost items popular with consumers. The merchandise offered may have different prices or all items may have the same price. Items for sale in these stores normally include household items, toys, cleaning materials, snacks and office supplies. Depending on the physical size of the store, more varieties of items may be offered, but all goods are typically perceived to be good consumer values.

Items that have been discontinued are commonly found in a variety store.
Items that have been discontinued are commonly found in a variety store.

The original model for the variety store was the five and dime store, often called dimestores. These retailers sprung up in the late 1800s, and no items for sale cost more than ten cents. Dimestores were found in almost every first world country.

A variety store might sell many different things at one price.
A variety store might sell many different things at one price.

By the 1900s, this concept was no longer viable as prices increased with industrialization and free market trade. The name, however, hung on until the late 1900s, when the traditional dimestore was supplanted almost worldwide by dollar stores. Similar to the dimestores of the past, many dollar stores quickly changed their policy of pricing every item at one dollar. Most offer heavily discounted products of which many, but not all, cost one dollar.

The typical variety store is able to keep its prices low based on several factors. A large percentage of brands sold is often private label or generic goods. These are frequently popular products that are made with less expensive materials and cheaper manufacturing processes than comparable goods sold at higher retail prices.

Other items may be grey market goods. This category includes merchandise that has been obtained through legal but often unauthorized or unofficial channels of distribution. These wares are commonly ones that were originally produced for a foreign market that sells them to a third party based on poor sales in the original market.

Items that are discontinued are also commonly found at a variety store. While they are typically free of defects, they may be slow sellers based on their connection with a past event such as a movie opening or past international sporting event. Music CDs and DVDs that did not fare well in traditional retail marketplaces are often found in discount variety stores as well.

The economic success of a typical variety store is frequently based on two factors. Buying and selling huge amounts of goods at heavily discounted prices provides a small per item profit that is offset by the volume of sales. The second factor that often contributes to the store’s profit margin is pricing a substantial number of items at prices that are higher than regular retailers. These goods are commonly purchased by consumers who perceive the prices to be bargains based on the other heavily discounted items in the store.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - I guess I like variety stores for things that aren't meant to be durable. We always go there to get stuff for quick costumes, or maybe candles or kitchen utensils at a pinch.

Their general merchandise is usually pretty cheap but it doesn't need to be expensive, so it's worth getting.


@Iluviaporos - I don't tend to like variety store merchandise very much, because it always seems quite cheap and tacky to me. I do think that Asian variety stores tend to be of a bit higher quality, but that might just be because I don't know enough about the items to know when something is a good buy or not.

I have family members who absolutely love the little useless decorative things you can get at variety stores and always buy them as gifts and I just can't stand it. I feel obligated to keep them because they are a gift, but they are so generic and not at all to my taste that they end up put into a closet and never even displayed.

I guess it's a bad idea to give people decorative things anyway even if they are expensive, because you don't know whether they will like the look of them or not.


My favorite variety store is one in the nearest town to me that sells items from Japan and other Asian countries. It has all kinds of cute little toys and craft materials and it has some pretty good prices on things like paper lanterns and stationary as well.

I guess the items are things that people in Japan would take for granted as mass produced and generic, but which seem unique to me because I'm not used to them.

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