In my lifetime, there has been an unprecedented assault on our highstreets. In the village where I grew up, I vaguely remember being a child, delighting in dragging my mother’s bag on wheels to the local shops. Mr Godfrey, ran the local grocer’s, Mr P (I never knew his real name) ran the green grocers next door; two doors down the road was a baker’s, a butcher’s, a news agent cum post office, an ironmonger and DIY shop and a chemist. Now they have all gone, all except the post office.
I don’t remember them going exactly, when the rot began, but imagine it was about the time that an out-of-town Retail Park arrived about a 15 minute drive away from our village. In the intervening years our picture perfect village has since exploded in size. 1970s, 80s and 90s housing estates have eaten away at the fields surrounding the village and another one is just about to arrive. Our village, which once had about 1,500 inhabitants (1981 Census) now has about 11,561 (Census 2011). It is almost unrecognisable.
Where the bakers used to be is a coffee shop, next to it is another staple of the modern high street, a Pound Shop. When these bargain shops first arrived they seemed to stock a very odd assortment of homeware products, end-of-line chocolates and biscuits. Now it sells fresh food, including mince, milk and bread, along with a dazzling array of different products: four-packs of loo roll, children’s socks, cans of dog food, reading glasses, pregnancy tests (one of the Pound shops claim to sell 14,000 of these every week), they even have jars of organic baby food and garden gnomes – all for exactly £1.
My mother loves these stores and is completely convinced that everything on sale is a bargain. She is horrified when I suggest that now, most of the country’s biggest manufacturers, such as Nestlé, Kraft and United Biscuits, now negotiate directly with these pound shops, making special small value packs of their products for the discount sector.
For example, a universal supermarket standard loaf of bread is 800g. In the pound stores the bread is 600g, so it is 25% smaller. The pound shops sell the same high street brands we know and love, which according to the prices published on http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk an 800g soft white loaf of Kingsmill will cost you 70p, the Warburton’s version cost 77p, and Hovis is 79p. So not such a bargain then!
Then there is my current hobby-horse, the price of milk! Personally I think it is totally wrong to pay more for a bottle of water, fizzy drinks or even a cup of coffee than for a bottle of milk, poor farmers! However, supermarkets sell mostly in “metric pints” such as 500ml, 1 litre or 2 litre bottles. As you may have read in the papers, just about every supermarket sells the big 2 litre bottles of milk for £1, so you’d think that it would be the same in the pound stores, but one of the big bargain shops, Poundland, sells milk as part of a two-for-£1 offer. But wait, rather than selling 2x 1 litre bottles for a pound, they have specially made 750ml bottles.
I think it is all a bit con, but, as my lawyer friends explained, there is no suggestion that Pound Shops are trying to mislead customers, the sizes are clearly printed on its products.
If you look closely, you will see multi packs of crisps, boxes of chocolates, tea bags and more which have been re-sized so that these “discount” shops can sell them for 99p or £1. Added to which many of Poundland’s ranges are branded with a variety of different names. The candles are supplied by Coley and Gill, the DIY by Toolbox, and the 200g of minced beef by Fenback Farm. But take a look at their labels and they all have the same PO Box number in Birmingham. The other big Pound Shops do the same, the industry calls these phantom brands, and they play an important part in encouraging shoppers to spend. If you gave someone a gift from a Pound shop, however well intentioned, they may not be too happy with you. Of course, we all like to think we are savvy shoppers, able to spot such canny marketing a mile off, but also, we all have that aged relatives who virtually expect you to turn up with a box of chocolates or “posh” biscuits with every visit. Sorry Bahlsen, you’ve just lost my custom!
However, even though I know that I am being conned in the food isles, part of the fun of shopping at pound shops is the sheer variety of wacky things you can pick up for a £1 including stocking fillers, party hats, bunting and even random seasonal delights. Earlier this year I bought solar lights for my garden – you guessed it, for a pound. They are great and a genuine bargain in my books, so it’s not all bad.