Across the UK, discount retailer Poundworld is holding closing-down sales. For staff who worked for the chain and customers who relied on its low prices, it’s more than just a High Street brand that could be lost.
Steven Mulgrove peers across the street into the window of Poundworld. “Store closing”, the posters read, “Save up to 50%.” Mulgrove, 24, used to work inside, at the beleaguered chain’s branch in Blyth, Northumberland. He spent 10 months unloading delivery trucks, stacking shelves and – his least favourite duty – scanning customers’ £1 dog treats and multi-packs of Heinz spaghetti hoops. “It wasn’t an ideal place to have the till,” says Mulgrove. “Right next to the door, in winter time.”
Some 300 miles to the south, Zareen Azam has just come off the phone to her manager. The same posters have just arrived at the Poundworld in Maidenhead, Berkshire, where Azam, also 24, works one day a week, on Wednesdays. Up until now, ever since the chain went into administration on 11 June, she’d held on to the possibility that her job would survive.
“I was hoping someone would buy it,” says Azam, a single mother of two boys aged three and 14 months. She’ll have to look for a new job to support them now. “I don’t want to leave.”
Although closing-down sales began last week, the chain’s administrators, Deloitte, perplexingly told the 5,100 staff that no branches were “definitely” shutting and that the search for a buyer was still under way.
But along the aisles themselves there’s a palpable sense of finality. There’s 20% off the owl-shaped solar lanterns. Cat litter tray bags are reduced by a full 30%. At the Poundworld Plus in Byker, just down the road from Blyth, a plastic hula-hoop can be picked up for 90p, while an off-the-peg pair of spectacles is just 50p.
Michelle Gregory, 56, emerges from the Blyth shop clutching a roll of tape marked “fragile” for wrapping parcels and a set of lip pencils. Gregory, who works for her husband’s furniture business and has lived in Blyth all her life, is a regular Poundworld shopper, and she can’t conceal her disappointment at what has befallen the company.
Just before Valentine’s Day, she bought a set of foil balloons from Poundworld. One depicted a red heart, the rest simply the word, “Love”. In the nearest card shop they were £6 each, she recalls, but at Poundworld they were only £1. “They still haven’t gone down since February,” she says, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. She seems wryly amused, but also genuinely impressed. “We had to take them out of the front room into the spare room. All a pound each and still as good as the day I got them.”
It’s an ignominious end for the chain, which dates its origins to 1974, when Charles Edwards Snr, set up a market stall in his home town of Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Poundworld grew to encompass 355 branches selling toiletries, beauty products, toys, pet products and other bits and bobs. It expanded rapidly in the wake of the recession a decade ago, reporting sales growth of 55% in 2012, and three years later a majority stake was sold to a private equity firm.
Like other troubled High Street firms, it has struggled with lower consumer confidence, increasing overheads and a rise in online shopping – Marks and Spencer, Mothercare, New Look and Carphone Warehouse have all shuttered branches in 2018.
But pound shops in particular depend on high turnover because their margins are so tight. Administrators Deloitte say trading at Poundworld had been “difficult for a substantial period of time”. For those employed in its stores, things are about to get even more difficult.
On her last shift before the closures were announced, Azam says, customer after customer approached her to ask if the chain was shutting down. She told them all she didn’t know, but she was struck by how much their local store mattered to them. In pound shops, she suggests, there’s a unique relationship between staff and customers.
In other types of shop, “all they do is scan your items,” she says. “They don’t really communicate with you.” In pound shops, by contrast, a bond develops between workers and the clientele, who are often infirm. “You get elderly people that can’t carry their baskets,” she says.
“We carry them for them. Some shops, they don’t do that kind of service.
“When I walk down the High Street they’re like: ‘Oh, you work in Poundworld.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, I served you, how are you?’ It’s a happy place to be.”
Azam’s youngest son was born with a condition that affected his ability to swallow. She has to take him to Oxford for regular hospital appointments, and if these clash with her usual Wednesdays in the shop her managers are relaxed about letting her swap her shifts.
She’s worried other employers won’t be so accommodating. “Immediately people think, ‘Oh, you’ve got two kids, single mum.’ Recently I applied for a hairdressers, they were like, ‘We’re looking for someone who can do certain hours.’”
For Mulgrove, however, it was the uncertainty surrounding his working hours that, in part, drove him to leave. He was employed on an eight-hour contract when he joined in August 2015, but there was so much overtime at the newly opened branch that he typically worked more than 30 each week. He enjoyed his job at first, in the warehouse at the back of the store, unloading pallets from lorries then stripping them down and sorting out the products that came in. “It was great,” he says. “Even though I didn’t have the title, I was kind of head delivery person. I got to organise what I wanted other people to do.”
Things started to go downhill for Mulgrove when he was moved on to the shop floor, stacking shelves, making sure stock was rotated and dealing with customers. He’d get to know the regulars – old people coming in for tins of soup, young mums with their kids – and most of them would be fine. But a significant minority would be rude and abusive. “They talk down to you as if they’re better than you,” he says.
His manager moved him on to the till, which he didn’t enjoy. He’d had a back injury that made standing for long periods of time uncomfortable. But it was the drop in his hours that bothered him most. Instead of 30-plus each week, he found he was only being called in for his contracted minimum of eight. Thanks to disability benefits he’s eligible for, he worked out that he’d be better off on the dole, and quit.
Although he doesn’t particularly have fond memories of his time there, Mulgrove says the loss of the store will be felt keenly by many of his old regulars – shoppers on low incomes who need to squeeze every penny. There are a lot of them in Blyth, which was hit hard by the loss of the ship-building and coal-mining industries.
“For people on a budget, it is a really good shop for them,” he says. “I wouldn’t say you can do your weekly shop there but you can pretty much get 30% of your weekly shop in the pound store – your shampoo, your tins of soup, your crisps…”
If its branch of Poundworld closes, Blyth won’t lack similar outlets. There’s a Poundstretcher two minutes’ walk down the road and a Poundland not far beyond that.
For this reason, Lilian McCallum, 84, has mixed feelings about the closure. She isn’t a regular at Poundworld, although when she read in the Daily Mirror that it was closing, she popped in to see if she could find any bargains, and came out with a chenille duster, a three-pack of ladies’ socks and a Milka bar.
McCallum worked all her life at HG Woodcock, a draper in Blyth, and she remembers when the building occupied by Poundworld was a grand Co-Operative department store with a men’s and ladies’ outfitters and a cafe on the top floor. The town felt prosperous then.
She doesn’t think the town needs multiple pound shops – one would be enough, she reckons. Her husband, who worked in the Blyth shipyard, lamented before he died that you couldn’t get a decent pair of shoes in the town any more. “But then again, I feel bad about it because Blyth’s getting less and less. Everything’s being taken away,” she says.
But leaving Poundworld soon after McCallum is Wendy Keenan, 49, whose feelings about the loss of the store aren’t in any way equivocal.
“It’s a damn disgrace,” says Keenan, a hotel housekeeper, who is bearing another pack of Poundworld ladies’ socks as well as a squeeze toy for her granddaughter. It was somewhere central to go and look around, she says. The building will no doubt stand empty again for years. Soon all that will be left in Blyth will be charity shops, she says. “I can go to Boot’s and pay £12 for blusher, or I can get it for £1 in here,” she says. “I’m really, really gutted.”
Not everyone will miss the chain as much as she will. But in communities like Blyth, its loss will be felt long after the sale posters have faded.
Follow Jon Kelly on Twitter @mrjonkelly
Photos by Will Walker / NNP unless otherwise stated.