Show Hide image

Quids in: how Poundland conquered the British high street

In 1990 it launched as a single shop; this year it posted sales of almost a billion pounds. How did a budget store flogging cheap tat grow so huge?

Pile 'em high, sell 'em low: the chain's winning formula stems from knowing exactly what we need. Photo: Amit Lennon

At the very back of the shop, far behind the stacks of Fairy Liquid and Dettol in the window, and the rows of pet food, confectionery and Tupperware, is Poundland’s book section: a couple of narrow shelves on which a few copies of a Kingsley Amis biography are strategically wedged between The Official Ollie Murs 2014 Annual and a self-help book on coping with childlessness.

In its early years, the whole of Poundland was as weird and wonderful as its bookshelves. But now, although it can still be relied on to stock some odd products (my recent finds include a lime-green bottle of aftershave called “The Edge” and a bag of “man flu” lozenges – the perfect passive-aggressive gift) it increasingly resembles a more conventional grocery or supermarket. The aisles are arranged logically, there’s a small fridge filled with drinks and snacks near the tills, most of the brands are recognisable and twice a shop assistant comes over to ask if he can help me with anything.

Poundland has smartened up its act. Its founder, Steve Smith, who opened the first shop in Burton-on-Trent in 1990 with a £50,000 loan from his father, likes to refer to the chain’s ISE, its “irresistible shopping experience”. You might snigger at the jargon but Poundland’s growth has been impressive. The firm trades through 517 shops across the country, and it plans to expand the number to 1,000. It sold £997.8m of goods in the year to April 2014 and on 12 March began trading on the London Stock Exchange, floating at £750m. How did a budget store in Burton-on-Trent selling (let’s face it) a lot of cheap junk grow so big?

Fixed-price shops and discount retailers have been the winners of the downturn. While sales at the big supermarkets are falling, the German budget stores Aldi and Lidl increased their sales by one-third and 14 per cent, respectively, in the third quarter of last year. Their success is triggering a price war on the high street: in March, Morrisons announced that it would invest £1bn in price cuts over the next three years, and Tesco and Asda quickly followed suit.

In 2008 the likes of Poundworld, 99p Stores and Poundland filled the gap in the market after Woolworths collapsed – and did so often literally, by taking over old Woolworths shops. My local Poundland, on Seven Sisters Road in Holloway, north London, occupies a familiar if depressing landscape, surrounded by empty lots, pawnbrokers and betting shops and standing opposite the distinctly scruffier MightyPound. (I went into MightyPound with the intention of interviewing a few customers for this article, but when I tried to snap a picture of a plastic handbag emblazoned with the friendly slogan “Keep calm and f*** off”, lying next to some furry toilet seat covers, a shop assistant barked, “No photos!” and ejected me.)

I can’t imagine this kind of customer service at Poundland. One intriguing aspect of the chain’s growth has been its success in attracting more affluent, middle-class shoppers. A friend of mine, a secondary school teacher, is obsessed with the place. “Guess where I got this?” she’ll say gleefully, waving a spiky plastic ball designed to stop clothes sticking together in the tumble dryer. The company boasts that a quarter of its shoppers are from the AB social group, broadly defined as those working in administrative and professional roles, or in mid-level management and above. Its most profitable stores are located in wealthier towns, such as Cambridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, Guildford and Bath.

We’re all becoming much less snobby about discount retailers. According to the research group Kantar, half of Britain now shops at Aldi and Lidl. They’re deliberately catering to middle-class tastes: at Christmas, Aldi sold lobsters for £5.99, award-winning champagne for £10 and cheap Serrano ham. With standards of living still below 2008 levels, middle-class shoppers are being more open-minded about where they buy.

Poundland doesn’t sell any £1 lobster or champagne – which is probably a good thing (I was not convinced by its faux-European champagne truffles) – but it has fought doggedly to gain social acceptance, among shoppers and mainstream brands alike, as Steve Smith tells me when we speak on the phone. His original business idea was inspired by his memories of helping out on his father’s market stall. His father kept a box on the stall for products with damaged packaging, all priced at 10p, and often that box made more money than anything else. This insight into the psychological power of fixed-price retail, married with the launch of the new £1 coin and his father’s decision to sell his cash-and-carry business and move to Majorca, lies behind his move in April 1990 to set up Poundland. When the first shop opened eight months later, it made £13,000 on the first day of trading. But Smith understood that these sales could be maintained only if he could encourage big brands to supply him with the goods to stock his shelves.

Smith says he faithfully attended buying shows for three years, but the sales representatives for major brands refused to meet him: they weren’t interested in filling the shelves of somewhere as low-market as Poundland. Eventually, he recalls, he “got a bit mad” at the stand for WD-40, the lubricant oil, and found himself agreeing to a price so high that Poundland would lose 3p on every can of the product sold. It flew off the shelves, and when WD-40 realised that Poundland had grown into one of its largest global retailers Smith was able to bargain down the price. He went on to strike a deal with Cadbury, and soon other big brands followed.

Poundland’s stock buyers are shrewd negotiators: not only are they able to bargain down prices, but they frequently talk companies into selling their product in odd-sized packages to keep the retail price under £1. While loaves of Warburtons bread sell at Tesco and Sainsbury’s in either 400 gram or 800 gram packages, Poundland stocks 600 gram loaves. Mainstream supermarkets sell Walkers crisps in multipacks of six or 12 but Poundland sells five-packs.

It also helps that these deals are seen as a useful way for companies to shift excess stock, which explains some of Poundland’s more unusual products: Smith cites among his victories the time he sold £1 golf clubs and a £1 six-foot desk. You might not think there’s much room for profit if you’re pricing everything for a pound, but Poundland makes bigger margins on its goods than higher-cost supermarkets. According to Kantar’s figures, Poundland averages a 36.9 per cent margin on its goods, compared to 25.7 per cent at Tesco and 24.5 per cent at both Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. “They negotiate really hard . . . they are ruthless,” says Simon Johnstone, an analyst at Kantar. No matter how great a bargain you think you’ve found on its shelves, the chances are that Poundland struck a bigger one.

Smith has benefited from the firm’s tough negotiating. He sold his business to the private equity firm Advent for £50m in 2002 (another private equity firm, Warburg Pincus, bought a majority share eight years later for £200m). Today, the 52-year-old, who has the broad physique and close-cut crop of a club bouncer, owns a 50-acre estate in Shropshire, complete with helipad and pet llamas. Does he still shop at Poundland? There’s a pause. “Yes, of course.” What does he buy there? Another pause. “Batteries . . . my wife bought some batteries there the other day.” Even Britney Spears shops at Poundland, he reminds me: she apparently visited the shop in October to stock up on matches. “They’re, like, the tiniest matches you’ve ever seen . . . they’re so cute,” the pop star told the chat-show host Alan Carr.

Discount retail in the UK is a profitable business: of the 1,000 people on the 2014 Sunday Times Rich List, those who made a fortune in this sector include Galen and Hilary Weston (who ran discount stores before buying up Selfridges in the UK, and are now worth £5.75bn); the Sports Direct founder, Mike Ashley (£3.75bn); and the Home Bargains founder, Tom Morris (£2bn). Many of them, like Smith, built their business from nothing and so have first-hand understanding of their cash-conscious customer base. Chris Edwards, who founded Poundworld, started out working on his parents’ market stall. The Lalanis, who launched 99p Stores, are first-generation Asian immigrants from Tanzania who moved to London in the 1970s after running a cash-and-carry near Lake Victoria. Even the current chief executive of Poundland is a self-made man. Jim McCarthy is the son of a window cleaner. He grew up in a council house in a Warwickshire mining village and rose through the ranks after joining Dillons Newsagents as a retail trainee aged 17.

McCarthy and the rest of the senior management at Poundland own 25 per cent of the firm, so they will have profited considerably from the flotation. What the sale of shares will mean for its shareholders and customers is a little harder to pin down. Was the decision by Warburg Pincus (which owned 75 per cent of the company) to take it public motivated by a desire to cash out while Poundland profits are at their peak? When the economy recovers, will middle-class shoppers retreat to the genteel, clutter-free aisles of Waitrose?

Weathering an economic recovery is, perversely, the first of Poundland’s three big challenges. The second is how to keep its products under £1, as each year of inflation puts more pressure on pricing. Finally it needs to compete in an increasingly crowded discount market: how much should Poundland fear Aldi, Lidl and even the 99p and 98p shops?

Unsurprisingly, the press team at Poundland brushed off my suggestion that shoppers might turn away as the economy improves. Perhaps they are right: all those Guardian articles promoting thrift, with their generous use of irritating terms such as “recessionista” and “credit crunch chic”, might have helped make it cool to be cheap. Hipsters now wear their charity shop purchases with pride, and self-consciously trendy restaurants serve foraged food and promote “head-to-tail” dining. Even the UK’s historic luxury stores want in on the trend. Fortnum & Mason, the London department store known for its overpriced preserves, fine wines and teas in Victoriana packaging, holds an annual Food and Drink Awards; last year it offered a special judges’ prize to Jack Monroe, who launched a popular food blog by posting low-cost, healthy recipes while struggling to feed her family on benefits.

Poundland declined an interview but agreed to answer questions by email, saying that consumer habits are “sticky and once customers experience the value on offer they are likely to keep coming back, even as the economy improves”. Perhaps, however, thriftiness will prove a fad. Simon Johnstone at Kantar said that, to hedge against a rise in disposable incomes, Poundland was investing in better-looking outlets and a wider range of groceries.

Alongside new lines of Poundland sandwiches and milk, you can expect more unusual packaging as the company struggles with changes in the economic climate. “Looking at the market in the United States, where the single-price dollar stores have been growing profitably for the past 60 years, we are confident that we can continue to manage inflationary pressures effectively for decades to come,” the company said in its statement. And yet, if you do cast your gaze on America, this year both McDonald’s and the fast-food chain Wendy’s have dropped their dollar menu, and a number of dollar stores have scrapped their fixed-price policy. At some point Poundland, too, will have to reconsider its “Yes! Everything’s £1!” slogan – or else sell single digestive biscuits and thimbles of Fairy Liquid.

But undoubtedly the biggest challenge will be to keep up with the competition. Determined bargain-hunters have never had more choice. A 2012 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, Secrets of Poundland, exposed how the size of the firm’s packaging has shrunk over the years, how packets are labelled with offers such as “50% extra free” to convince shoppers they are getting value for money, and how some of its own-brand goods are of poor quality – yet the creative labelling appears to have had little effect on sales.

Many Poundland shoppers are too canny to be hoodwinked by the £1 label. The shoppers I chatted to at Poundland in Holloway weren’t mindlessly filling up their baskets with junk. Some, like Paul, who has been out of work for several years with a “gammy leg”, meticulously research the offers at their local discount shops. He recited the prices for two litres of milk from five local supermarkets (perhaps it’s not enough now to ask politicians to state the price of a pint of milk; a surer sign of the common touch would be an MP being able to recite the price of milk from several stores) and told me that today he’d buy his dog food at Poundland but milk at Morrisons. Robin, a retired former Tube driver, had visited all of his local pound shops in the past few days. “That’s what the government is telling us to do, to shop around,” he said. Poundland doesn’t only have to contend with price-cutting competitors, it needs to retain customers with little sense of brand loyalty who are willing to hunt around for a bargain.

As well as colonising the high street, pound shops are moving online. In February, Steve Smith launched his latest venture, in partnership with his former rival Poundworld, called poundshop.com – a garish orange website selling anything from £1 bras to baby rattles. He says the website is so popular that when it launched it crashed because of the high volume of web traffic. Within hours, 30,000 people had registered to use the site and Smith had made sales of £12,000. Once he begins reading out emails he has received from grateful online shoppers (“Thank God, we can’t carry all that stuff back on the bus, now we can!”) he is temporarily unstoppable. A week earlier, hereforapound.com also launched. It remains to be seen how well they do on the web in the long term – you’re less likely to impulse-buy an armful of cheap things when you’re sitting at your laptop – but the move suggests that they are increasingly catering to everyday shoppers rather than the bottom of the market.

Pound shops might be an eyesore on Britain’s high streets, yet unlike betting shops or pawnbrokers, their expansion could be a good thing for consumers: never before has the discount market been quite so intensely competitive. And although that bizarre bookshelf in Holloway seems a relic of the old Poundland, before private equity funding helped turn its quirky, cluttered stores into a relatively sleek operation, it also reflects the range of customers the shop now attracts.

Which means that even though Poundland is becoming increasingly common on high streets, it remains an unusual place. Where else will you find the long-term unemployed and overworked management consultants, fashion students and science teachers, diehard bargain-hunters and curious yummy mummies rubbing shoulders as they jostle for that final out-of-season chocolate Santa, ten-pack of Space Raiders or giant pot of penny sweets?

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?