The demise of Topshop, Debenhams, Bonmarche and Moss Bros over the past week has widely been regarded as a sign of impending doom for our high streets. So it’s hard to believe one stores giant is busy expanding in towns and cities across Britain as other retailers falter.
Yet this weekend, Poundland managing director Barry Williams reveals he is opening half a dozen new stores – and already has his eye on more to add to his existing 856.
‘There’s a lot of space coming available on the high street,’ he says candidly, with no small hint that he wants to move fast.
The pandemic hasn’t stopped Poundland sales hitting almost £1.8billion to the end of September and Williams says ‘depending on the availability of sites that could accelerate quite dramatically’.
Poundland was one of the prime beneficiaries of Woolworths’ demise a decade ago and – despite some ‘life-threatening’ events for the business along the way – it has continued hoovering up sites left empty by struggling retailers.
‘We occupy the most ex-Woolworths stores out of any retail brand – 130 or 140,’ says the former Asda executive and Liverpudlian retail veteran. ‘We’ve also taken quite a lot of M&S stores, a significant amount – not far off 100. Now we’re moving into ex-Next stores and a couple of former Debenhams stores.’
He ponders the demise of so many chains – and his assessment is unlikely to endear him to those who have sought to apportion blame on to everything from Government tax policy to the painful four-week lockdown in November just as Christmas was approaching.
‘It’s like someone has pressed fast forward to the end of the movie for these businesses,’ he says.
‘I feel for the colleagues – tens of thousands of retail workers are now facing a pretty bleak future. But, let’s be clear about this, those businesses had a problem pre-Covid and all the lockdown has done is accelerate that. Each one of those businesses was waving the white flag long before the November lockdown took place.’
He suggests the problem was ‘too much retail space’ on the high streets which now ‘needs to be reinvented’. Basic services must return to bring back visitors – ‘the doctor, the dentist, whatever it may be. Then, if you look above all the retail shops, there is a load of vacant space up there. So let’s convert that to affordable living and put people back in. The minute you do all that, you start to regenerate.’
Speaking from his new office in Walsall – a former HMRC regional office where Poundland moved four weeks ago – Williams, 50, accepts more can be done to help shops.
‘The lockdown has exposed the disparities between physical and digital retailers. If anything I think people should be calling for a windfall tax on Amazon given the benefit that they’ve had from this.
‘We’ve traded all the way through but it hasn’t been a walk in the park,’ he says, referring to the chain’s ‘essential status’ that allowed it to remain open thanks to its food ranges. ‘It’s been lonely and it’s been challenging. You visit shops on some high streets and you feel like you’re on the set of a disaster movie – there’s nobody about.’
Poundland typically serves seven million customers a week, dropping to just ‘three or four’ million at the start of the first lockdown before slowly building again as those who arrived bought more to save on trips.
He talks of the ‘resilience’ of the chain whose name has become part of the national lexicon. But he insists Government support was ‘much needed’ and he would have faced ‘much more different – and difficult – decisions if that level of support wasn’t available’.
The pandemic wasn’t Poundland’s first brush with disaster in recent years. In December 2017, just months after he was promoted to managing director a year after arriving, it faced what he refers to as its first ‘Black Swan Event’ – a change that threatened to kill the business off – when an accounting scandal saw parent Steinhoff implode.
‘We were having the office Christmas jumper competition and there were people in suits from PwC in reception,’ he remembers.
But, now on a more sure footing, Poundland is growing – more frozen and chilled food as well as an increase in pets ranges. Its Pep & Co clothing brand, launched just five years ago and now in 300 shops, has quietly hit the top 20 biggest high street clothing brands by volume.
Meanwhile, the average size of each new store has doubled to 12,000 sq ft since he joined. But he insists that variety on high streets – including pound shops – ‘works’. ‘No one wants that more than me.
I’ve been sat on those high streets being the only one open – we work well together to draw in customers.’
He bristles when he thinks of those that ‘take our name in vain’ and insists Poundland is part of the solution not the problem: ‘I get a little frustrated. Even with high streets closed, we attracted three or four million customers. Everyone in the UK knows who Poundland is.
‘So when I hear people talking about the demise of the high street and complaining, “It’s just coffee shops, charity shops, and pound shops,” I feel like grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and saying, “Hang on a minute; what is it about our business, the customers and the general population of the UK that you just don’t get?”
‘Because pound shops equal amazing value and that’s what customers are after.
‘When people look down their nose a bit at these brands or these people that work in these jobs, I think that partly the levelling up that this country is going to go through is to look at these people a bit differently.’
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