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Pound stores – an icon of austerity capitalism?

  • Written by  Alison Hulme
  • Published in Opinions
 1000 Words
27 Feb
Pound stores have become ubiquitous on our high streets, more so than since the recession hit

Poundland profits rose by 81 per cent in 2010, and in 2011 increased by another 27 per cent at a time when high streets everywhere were struggling. Their success continues – only last week the company announced it would take over its cheaper rival 99p Stores.

When I first started following pound store products I was not to know quite how topical an issue these types of shops would become. My interest was in conducting a material geography of something utterly ubiquitous – a case study that could add to the classic thing-following studies that already existed, such as Sidney Mintz’s 1986 work on sugar, or more recently Pietra Rivoli’s 2005 exploration into T-shirts

My following of pound store products took me to Chinese rubbish dumps and waste-peddling quarters, to factories, international trade hubs and showcase cities, container ports, overflowing high-street stores and finally to the homes of consumers. Throughout this journey, two key truths emerged.

First, that unlike other commodity chains, the £1 chain thrives on rupture; while many of the key places along it are very established and historically ensconced in the chain, others are in constant flux and the £1 commodity’s journey is a fretful one in which breakages occur, repositionings are forced, and collateral damage is integral.

Pound stores subtly instill a pride in the ability-to-purchase for those usually unable to do so, causing them to remain participants in a capitalist ideal

Second, that despite this, the chain had a logic based on characteristics that did remain constant – a logic I have called the ‘logic of the bargain’. The key elements of this are the ability of Chinese manufacturers to eke out small amounts of profit from minimal resources; the ability to foster alternative local networks of solidarity which enable the sidestepping of newly introduced legalities or processes in China; the ability to transport commodities on a mass scale across the globe without the inventories becoming large, or more importantly, stagnant; and the responsive nature of the stores themselves which exhibit ‘opportunistic supply chains’ and an ‘unstable stocking model ’.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the logic of the bargain depends upon the ability of both China and the West to profit from the spending of those with the least financial means. In China, this can be seen in the emphasis on creating a domestic consumer market – unlocking the spending power of a rural reserve army of consumers by improving welfare and so encouraging the spending of savings though ‘golden week’ holidays.

poundland2An increasingly familiar sight on British high streets. (Image: Thinglass)

In the West, where the economic ideology of the necessity for consumer spending shows no sign of abating (not least under austerity), it can be seen in the way that pound stores subtly instill a pride in the ability-to-purchase for those usually unable to do so, causing them to remain participants in a capitalist ideal. Millions of debt-ridden consumers search for cheap products, enabling the stores to become ideal vehicles for what I am calling consumptive thrift.

This plugging of the gaps with the trickle of profits from the poorest manufacturers and shoppers sits in stark contrast to the purported economic aspirations and beliefs of both East and West, whose economies are built on the idea of trickle down. The bargain store places emphasis on those who should be receiving the benefits of trickle down to join the effort to keep us afloat. In fact, consumptive thrift has arisen from the new age of austerity – an austerity in which the cheap functions, not in its own right, but to facilitate the continuation of patterns from past eras – maintaining a psychology of conspicuous consumption that now emphasizes quantity rather than quality, and the ability to waste without concern.

Alison Hulme is a lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of On the Commodity Trail: The Journey of a Bargain Store Product from East to West.

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