October 3, 2012 by Rhi
A few weeks ago, I watched an edition of Dispatches on Channel 4 entitled “The Secrets of Poundland”.
It billed itself as an expose of the practices behind the high street retailer’s pricing structure, and showing the truth behind the way in which they manage to keep their £1 price promise whilst still showing massive amounts of growth – bucking the economic trend of other retailers. In truth, it seemed to be an exercise in stating the bleedin’ obvious whilst engaging in that wonderful, middle-class hand-wringing about how poor people are not only reeeeeally poor, but also too stupid to comprehend basic ideas of value for money, whilst completely ignoring the key issues faced by people living on low incomes. Same old, same old.
You can read an article about the programme on the Dispatches website, written by the presenter, the epically named Harry Wallop. But the key points of the programme were that Wallop was, hilariously, astonished to discover that sometimes Poundland stuff is worth less than a pound. And sometimes you can get better deals at supermarkets. And sometimes they present an extra-free deal as being better than it actually is. Obviously, this was all presented through the prism of exposing the retailer as tricking customers into buying something they could get cheaper elsewhere and how this is potentially a matter for Trading Standards. If this is a reason for reporting a retailer, I can only imagine that Waitrose are Public Enemy #1 in the Trading Standards office, and how the DFS “sale” has escape Dispatches scrutiny so far is a mystery.
I shop at Poundland quite a lot. I live in a city where there are no less than four stores
within walking distance. I find them very useful for picking up craft supplies for youth groups, as well as a good source of cheap headphones for wearing when out and about (I kill headphones with alarming regularity by wearing them to bed). However, I’m not a bloody imbecile. I can tell when something is good value or not. One thing Wallop got quite excited about exposing was the fact that a number of different “brands” sold within Poundland have the same PO Box address. Turns out, they’re all owned by Poundland and the different names are to give an “artificial impression of choice and range”. It’s not really artificial to most people, I wouldn’t have thought. When you go into Poundland, you’re looking to buy something for a quid. I couldn’t care less what the name on the label is – you don’t look at the fireplace when you’re poking a fire made with bootleg coke.
The aspect of the programme which I found most disturbing was when Wallop set up a “rival store” along the street from a Poundland, inviting people in and telling them that Poundland sell different sizes of product to those which you would find in a supermarket. For example, a Warburton’s loaf in Poundland is only 600g, as opposed to the 800g you could apparently buy in Tesco that week at two for £2. They also addressed the shrinking sizes of packs – instead of the two packets of Disco crisps you could buy a few years ago for a pound, now you only get one. That Poundland have had to maintain their profit margin in the current economic climate seemed to come as a real shock to poor Harry. I’m not sure whether he thought they were engaged in some kind of economic magic circle to allow them to maintain pack sizes at the same price regardless of the economy, but my overwhelming response was “Meh. It’s still only a quid though. That’s still A Good Deal”. Which it is when you’re less interested in simple value for money, and more concerned with what percentage of your weekly income will be spend on consumables.
Which brings me to the real point which Dispatches completely missed about why people shop in Poundland, and it’s an error most people make when discussing how to shop on a budget. In order to prove that Poundland was not the best value for money, they compared their prices with those of the big four supermarkets, and discovered that amazingly you could buy things cheaper there. However, these weren’t like for like comparisons. These were based on overall value. For example, if a jar of Nescafe coffee at 100g was in Poundland, they would suggest that if Tesco were selling a 500g jar for £4.50, that was better value, and therefore you’d be better off buying from Tesco. Which is true. However, when you’re on a weekly income, your food budget might only be around £15. Which means, in order to get value for money, you are spending nearly a third of your food money on coffee. Yes, it lasts. Yes, it’s a good deal. But I’d prefer to spend a pound a fortnight on coffee, than take the financial hit. Morrisons are especially good at bulk deals which although work out cheaper overall, are useless to those with a limited amount to spend. This is the reality of living on a budget. You can’t blow half of it on chopped tomatoes, however good a deal it might seem. You buy what you need, when you need it, down to counting out how many onions you’re likely to use during the week. Anything else is financial suicide.
So although Dispatches were technically correct in pointing out that you can get things cheaper elsewhere, they ignore the reason why people shop at Poundland – you know how much everything will cost, and you can monitor what you spend as you go. I know my headphones would last longer if I bought Skull Candy from HMV at £50 a pop. But I don’t HAVE that kind of money to shell out. I have £1 every month for a new set of headphones, and I can get a new mop every so often for less than the price of a phone call. I’m find with that. However, I also know that Semi-Chem three doors up from Poundland sell air freshener for 79p, and I know when supermarkets are likely to have their Crash and Dent chiller cabinets groaning under the weight of almost-out-of-date treats. If you don’t have money, you can’t afford to be stupid when it comes to the value of things.
The idea I found most offensive was that poor people wandering into Poundland would be unaware of all of this. That those of us who shop there wouldn’t work out that some things in there were worth less than a pound. No Shit Sherlock. It’s a business, they make money. They don’t do that using a printing machine. Only people who don’t need to worry about spending money could ever afford to walk round Poundland in a spending-frenzied haze.
PS One thing which was mentioned in the show which made me chuckle was the concern about Poundland selling Stila make-up products which were, according to the manufacturers, potentially 8 years old. Stila were at pains to point out that they didn’t approve of Poundland selling their products. What a shock. I can confirm that those Stila products are pretty good – I’ve been using one for the last month with no ill-effects. Not sure what that says about the quality of Stila, but evidently their preservation techniques are excellent.