We knew the drill. We’d clamber onto the number 35 bus, hand over half of our student loan for a return ticket to the city, then hold tight until we swung onto St Stephen’s Street. On arrival, it was straight into QD, a temple of almost-useful products at student-friendly prices. Jam jars? Check. Curtain rails? Check. Discount sea salt? Check.
And when we had exhausted both floors of what we were ashamed to admit was our favourite shop in the city, we’d totter across the street to Poundland to pick up anything that a 45-minute browse of QD had left us lacking.
That was when I was in first year. Halcyon days – but, alas, longer ago than I now care to discuss in anything but the most intimate company. (Let’s just say that Shake It Off was nearly half a decade away and David Cameron was still a Number Ten newbie.).
How times have changed. We no longer catch the 35 – or even the 25A – but the 26; the bus stop has moved from the top of St Stephen’s Street to just outside Debenhams; and, most arrestingly, QD has become a Poundland. Another one. Britain’s finest city is now the proud owner of two branches of the High Street’s best-known proponent of the one-price-fits-all retail experience.
Now this showers sparks to the mental touch paper of those of us with enquiring minds. How did we end up in this situation? Is it sustainable? And just what is the difference between what we shall henceforth call the left- and right-side Poundland (facing M&S, obviously)?
Here at Concrete, we are not afraid to ask the difficult questions. And we do not shy away from putting ourselves at the coalface of investigative journalism. So with these Values at the forefront of our minds, and armed with a list of student essentials (pictured above), Jodie and I go undercover as “ordinary students” to discover the truth about the Poundlands of St Stephen’s Street.
We start with the left-side Poundland: the newer of the two and the one that, when I was a first year and Victoria was on the throne, used to be QD. It’s clean, it’s bright, and the stock is neatly laid out. We hunt about for the items on our list.
Shampoo is not hard to find. Jodie remarks that there is a “great variety”, and she’s not wrong. It’s also arranged chromatically, which makes it all look very lovely. This being Poundland, the own-brand range is the same price as your more high-end fare.
Not far off we find hair extensions, one of the more out-there items on our list. Not necessarily the kind of things that one would consider wearing on a day-to-day basis, but useful perhaps for fancy-dress parties. Jodie’s not impressed, though: “not naturally coloured” – they’re lurid pink – “and embarrassingly thin” are her only thoughts.
Washing-up liquid is as bountiful as shampoo, but it seems that there is only one brand on offer. It’s a shame, but Poundland markets itself on price, not consumer choice, so I suppose we can let them get away with it. One aisle across and we chance upon sparkly dustpans and brushes. Seriously, these would give Shirley Bassey a run for her money. They’re certainly not what we expected to find – I can’t imagine setting out from the house saying “I’m just popping off to fetch me a bedazzlingly bright dustpan” – but they’d be undeniably good for those times when you find yourself tempted to do a little light sweeping during house parties.
Of DVDs, there are more than you can shake a stick at. That said, none of them are what one could reasonably call recent releases. Over to Jodie: “It’s all well and good if straight-to-DVD sequels are your thing. And if you like watching England win an old World Cup”.
We are quickly realising that Poundland doesn’t give a monkeys for arranging its products thematically. Power tools are opposite scented candles. Bike stuff is next to kitchen stuff. The layout is “eclectic and funky”, notes Jodie, and we agree that it makes for a more spontaneous shopping experience.
There are some intriguing placement choices, though. Condoms are scarcely six inches away from pregnancy tests. Does this boost condom sales, we wonder, or does it reflect poorly on the condoms’ ability to do their job?
Having ticked off a few more products, we stumble across the perfume section. Yes, that’s right. Perfume for £1.00. The men’s is Umbro – not a brand I’d customarily associate with the cologne market but, then again, not something that I won’t try once. It smells ungodly. This isn’t just bad, this is a level of badness so base and intense and that no self-respecting person should wear it. Ever. UEA: you have been warned.
Ten minutes or so later, we make it to the food section. And Jodie’s impressed. “You could easily do a decent shop here”, she says as she turns over a packet of cookies with an enquiring hand. They don’t have meat or vegetables – nothing, in short, with a use-by date this side of next weekend – but there’s pretty much everything else besides.
Before leaving, we discuss our impressions of the left-side Poundland. We are both much taken with the variety of goods on offer, even if not everything is quite to our taste. Browsing is easy; you find a lot you didn’t know you wanted (nasal hair removal kit, anyone?); and the selection is good. As we queue to pay – I’ve taken the opportunity to buy some much-needed household goods – Jodie provides a neat precis: “A trip to Poundland”, she observes, “is a must for anyone who aspires to be a hygienic, well-equipped, card-giving person”. And she is delighted by the range of batteries on offer.
We are about to leave for the second Poundland when I am gripped by the spirit of investigative journalism. Chatting away next to the tills is Emma, who seems to work here: I ask her why Norwich has two Poundlands. “It has four!” she tells me. Wow. This is more than either Jodie or I can handle, and definitely outside the scope of this article. (That said, if anyone has experience of the other two, please do drop by the media office and we can talk about them over cocktails.)
I ask specifically about the St Stephen’s Street Poundlands. The right-side one, she says, was going to close. “After QD shut this shop was gonna become a 99p store, but that fell through. Then Poundland took it over. The old one was meant to close before Christmas; now they say it’ll close by April. But who knows?
“They both make loads of money, though. You wouldn’t have thought it, but they do. This one has better stock. And better staff. Tell them that when you go over”. Jodie and I make ready to see for ourselves.
The right-side Poundland is not as well kept as its newer, brighter sibling. The floors are grimier and Jodie is convinced that the “air is dirtier”. She says that “this is the seedy under-belly of Norwich – and I like it”. Clearly she’s never been to Mile Cross.
We quickly realise that much of the stock is the same. Toothpaste, detergent, condoms. This Poundland, however, augments the sex selection with a vibrating cock ring. I fear that we spend longer contemplating this item than is strictly necessary. It claims to vibrate for up to 20 minutes, which Jodie finds a little excessive, and purports to be fashioned from the “highest advanced European technology”. Well quite. And all for £1.00! Jodie notes that this should be the Poundland of choice for friskier students.
More DVDs lurk around the corner. Many are the same as before – Poundland must be the only place in the county that takes Peter Kay’s back catalogue so seriously – but this one has the addition of the Sascha Baron-Cohen collection which, as Jodie quite rightly points out, is “exciting news for everyone involved”. We also uncover the Pussycat Dolls Workout 2, a welcome find for anyone who thought that their putative first foray into the world of fitness videos wasn’t quite enough.
The food selection, like that of the rest of the shop, is more limited than that over the road, but there are still some stand-out features. The Cadbury corner is a “delight” for Jodie, and she trills that the tinned area is “fab!”
This Poundland also appears to have put more effort into its seasonal offerings. There is an entire stretch of shelving devoted to Valentine’s Day: a broadside of pink that sits incongrously next to the garden tools and hosepipe accessories. The sex theme continues: so-called love cuffs present to the budget shopper the opportunity to tether their lover to the bedstead with loudly coloured fluff. Jodie notes that, beneath this raunchy offering, was a pair of pink mittens: “something for the not so adventurous”, she suggests.
Just in front of the checkouts is what we can only describe as the hen party section. Pink feather boas, a selection of “luxury” wigs – assuming that your idea of luxury is looking like special musical guest Cher circa 1998 – and plastic shot glasses attached to lurid necklaces. In short, everything that you could possibly need for a memorable night out with the cast of Towie. Reem.
The right-side Poundland, we conclude, is for your essentials: hit after hit of the fundamentals. But if you have the time to browse and try out some previously undiscovered products, the newer, flashier, left-side Poundland is for you.
It has been an interesting afternoon. Norwich, it would appear, is perfectly capable of sustaining four branches of Poundland, two of which sit directly opposite each other and all of which are seemingly profitable. Quite what this tells us about the city, we don’t know. That we leave to greater minds than ours. For now, we retire with our £1.00 purchases, thankful that the gods of discount shopping for the numerically challenged smile so warmly on Norfolk.