Why pound shops are the saviours of civilisation
As happens from time to time, WoSblog spent the weekend just past on Snack Patrol. As the name implies, Snack Patrol is a semi-regular event in which novelty, innovation and excitement in the world of snack treats is sought out and experimental tastings conducted.
Now, it’s easy to achieve success in this field if one is possessed of limitless wealth (go to Cybercandy in London and watch your wallet empty at breathtaking speed in return for unquestionable invention but remarkably little mass), but for those of us not the beneficiaries of offshore trust funds, the most rewarding destination is undoubtedly the pound shop.
Bath lost its only pound shops in the recent makeover of the Southgate shopping centre, which spent £360m of someone’s money to turn the city’s retail heart from a hideously ugly 1970s concrete low-rise containing many useful and practical shops into a tasteful and architecturally-sensitive shrine to modern consumerism which no heterosexual male has any business being within 100 feet of.
The stationers, newsagents, bookshops, cafes, electronics suppliers, supermarkets and more which inhabited the old centre have all been driven out of existence by the remorseless landgrab of women’s fashion chains, which are practically the only stores to be found in the immaculate precincts of the new Southgate. (And which are serviced, incidentally, by a new bus station of such utterly stupefying and jarring monstrousness that any aesthetic failings of the old shopping centre pale into microscopic insignificance by comparison, particularly in the light of the exceptionally beautiful building that was bulldozed to make way for it.)
But more on that another day. The upshot is that WoSblog headed off on a Cheap Day Return to nearby Swindon, which remains something of a bastion of pleb shopping, suitable for plebs such as your reporter. And a rewarding day it was, too.
The Poundland was disappointing snackwise, and yielded little except some four-packs of full-size Galaxy Ripples. It was, however, excellent for gaming and electronic gadgets, with such items as a perfectly decent Wii steering-wheel controller frame for – obviously – £1, and a wide range of very handy USB and AV cables, including iPhone TV-outs. In fact, Poundland seems to be fast becoming a sort of bricks-and-mortar DealExtreme. But Swindon also hosts a truly pioneering development in budget retail, catering to those for whom £1 is a little high-end: the 99p Store.
The website for the 99p Store is misleadingly unenticing, for some reason choosing to list only the most mainstream products available in the large, sprawling shop. But in fact it’s long been a treasure trove of weirdness, and not only in the food department. The toiletries section, for example, contains a thrilling mix of bargain-priced premium brands (Strepsils Extra 24-lozenge pack, £2.77 at Tesco, or Arm & Hammer toothpaste, £3 at Tesco) and stuff that you just can’t find in other British supermarkets, both name-brand (Colgate Citrus Blast or Herbal varieties, say) and weird products from God knows where, such as “Man” 50s-style haircream in fantastic glass jars.
WoSblog snagged bargains galore. The picture above depicts some mint-flavoured crispy-shelled chocolate mini-eggs (“Nutritional information for Canada only”), the intriguingly adventurous fruit-juice pairing of grape and mango, and the never-seen-before Cherry Vimto, going at two 500ml bottles for 99p and very nice indeed. (Elsewhere on the Patrol I’d finally managed to get hold of a single can of Cherry 7-Up, which has been in my local cash’n’carry for months without ever seeming to make it into any actual shops. Sadly it’s a bit foul.)
Bargain shops often seem to be used as advance testing-grounds for new products in this way, as well as clearance points for unsuccessful lines and inexplicable foreign imports like Egyptian Fanta. WoSblog still regrets that the banoffee-centre Dairy Milk bars it bulk-bought in Farmfoods one time never made it to the UK High Street, and to this day hopefully scours the shelves of every pound chain it enters for more supplies of Bassett’s heavenly normal and sour Wine Gums, which are a hundred times the sweet of the piss-poor UK equivalents and which have shown up at various times in all three of Farmfoods, Poundland and the 99p Store.
Fruit-Tellas are a particularly rich vein to mine in pound shops. Recently I bought some very weird orange-and-blackcurrant ones (that is, orange and blackcurrant in the same sweet), but the strawberry yoghurt ones on sale in the 99p store (also originating in Poland, and sold as part of a wide-ranging mix-and-match 4-for-99p offer also encompassing cans of Pepsico drinks, bags of crisps and various chocolate bars including Mars Dark) are particularly nice.
The real find in the 4-for-99p deal were the Terry’s Caramel Bite bars, though – split Bounty-style into two minibars and featuring an absolutely delicious blend of nice chocolate, cocoa biscuit, rice crispies and lovely gooey caramel, far superior to the sickly stuff in either Cadbury’s or Galaxy’s caramel offerings. The wrapper listed them as being made in Cheltenham, but I’ve never seen them in a UK shop, which as a shame bordering on criminal.
There was lots more (including the inaccurately-named Sour Mix sweets blogged yesterday), but this isn’t supposed to be a shopping list, so we probably better start approaching the point.
Shopping in the UK has never been more tightly in the grip of global megacorporations than it is now, even at the level of snack products. It used to be that visiting different cities in Britain was like going to another country – newsagents, even ones in the same chain, would sell different crisps (KP or Golden Wonder in Scotland, Tudor in the North, Smiths down South), different drinks, different sweets, different everything.
Now not only does every High Street have all the same shops on it, but they all sell the same stuff inside, and for all the constant avalanche of new products, the core ranges are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. (Only one supermarket in Bath even sells Walkers worcester-sauce crisps now, never mind the pipedream of being offered any alternative crisp brands other than the store’s own.)
But there’s more to it than that. Slowly but unmistakeably – and by deliberate design – poor people are being forced out of cities entirely, and retailing is one of the prime mechanisms for that social engineering. City-centre living is being made so cripplingly expensive, between housing prices (inflated by selling off council houses and tearing down whole estates in “regeneration” projects built for the aspirational middle classes – we don’t use the giveaway term “gentrification” these days) and the cost of living.
The latter is embodied by hugely expensive high-end shopping developments like the new Southgate and Cabot Circus, where the real-estate is so costly that only high-margin businesses like fashion stores can hope to generate enough revenue to be viable, driving out any kind of low-price retailers and forcing the poor ever further out into the suburbs and decaying old towns.
In such a way the poor are made poorer still, because all these expensive shops still need low-paid workers, who now have to commute in to their jobs every day, spending more money and reducing their quality of life, and leaving them too tired to notice or protest (assuming they even had an avenue by which to do so, something which is no longer politically the case in the UK). And the country’s illusory growth – based on debt and totally imaginary money – can be dragged out slightly longer before the inevitable crash.
So go to pound shops, viewers. For as long as they and the unregenerated places where they’re found thrive, there’ll be no excuse to knock them down and replace them with lavish new malls full of useless fashion chains. And as a reward for preserving diversity and saving civilisation, you’ll get to broaden your horizons and, most importantly, get some really great sweets for pennies.