Pound shops: scoundrel or saviour of the high street? Personally I’ve grown to rather adore them. Pottering around my local 99p store as I’m wont to do of a spare Saturday afternoon, I see a microcosm of society, and I feel one’s attitude to such stores is very telling. Wind the clock back, say, five years and I’d have cheerfully recounted that I’d never set foot in one, and no doubt I’d have had all kinds of preconceptions as to why I wouldn’t, either. But today, newspapers gleefully tell of the rising retail dominance of the discount stores and their trend-bucking sales. In fact, Poundland, with its 400 shops in the UK, announced a 24 per cent rise in profits in 2012 and boasts of 4 million customers walking through its doors every week. And I’m not surprised. After all, who wouldn’t be tempted by a box of 16 Finish dishwasher tabs for £1? Fairy liquid for £1. Johnson’s cotton buds for £1! Illuminated garden gnomes and dodgy DVDs, perhaps not. But I can reliably inform you that the store’s £1 doggie tug toys have outlasted supposedly more deluxe and considerably pricier models, and whenever any decorating touch-ups are called for, I much prefer to buy a £1 pack of brushes to throw away after use, rather than wasting water cleaning proper brushes, or stinking the house out with turpentine.
The thing is, there are certain items that I feel positively jubilant about being able to purchase at low cost, but others I’d never touch. It divides roughly thus: yes to household cleaning products, bleach, branded toilet paper and kitchen towel, toothpaste and so forth, plus garden stuff like slug pellets and bug spray: in other words, the more mundane necessities of life. But it’s a categorical no to foodstuffs, dog food and batteries. Despite these also being clearly branded, somehow I find myself ‘suspicious’ of such items if they’re too cheap. Things for consumption seem to warrant a reassuringly reasonable price point, and in a quick, deeply unscientific poll, friends agree that ‘inexpensive’ batteries are not to be trusted. Possibly folly. After all, pre-recession, going to discount stores was perceived as ‘inferior shopping’. Pre-recovery, it’s simply ‘smart shopping’.
What intrigues me about all this is the long-term effect. Will I return to Waitrose for my loo roll if my bills go down? Probably not. Why pay more? But conversely, would I also consider buying more organic food again? Also, probably not. (Generally speaking, annual UK sales of organic products continue to decline year on year.) Again, it’s the fine line between cost and perceived value. Instead, I’m thinking that my next logical step is to jettison home delivery of perishables entirely, in favour of returning to the time-honoured tradition of going to a weekly market to stock up on my fruit and veg. Maybe I’ll even get some chickens!
It’s food for thought though, isn’t it? When belt tightening has to happen, you very quickly discover where your priorities truly lie. And sometimes, what you’re not prepared to cut back on might surprise you.
First published as my Editor’s Letter in the August 2013 edition of ELLE Decoration UK