From the Penny Bazaar to Bargain Buys

Hard to believe this was a discount store in the 1980s; this was the one time home of Barlins Bargains, off Cavendish Street, Ashton-under-Lyne.

In the last week, it was revealed that TESCO was losing ground to the likes of Aldi and Lidl. Some bad figures have also affected Morrisons, which is probably losing custom to both the bottom end and the top end of the grocery market.

In the last year, much noise had been made about the replacement of Marks and Spencer’s Warrington Street branch with a Bargain Buys store. Interestingly, many moons ago, Marks and Spencer and F.W. Woolworth cut their teeth as single price/fixed price retailers. The former’s first Ashton branch was in the town’s indoor market. The same, true of Morrisons, as documented on the walls of Ashton Indoor Market.

In the Edwardian period, the reasons for a proliferation of single price retailers and bargain stores were just the same as today. That of low wages and scope for the odd impulse buy at another. Oh, and we also had a Tory Government for most of the Edwardian era, sandwiched between a Liberal Government for three years.

Before discount stores became a mainstay of the High Street, indoor and outdoor markets would be the first port of call for many a bargain hunter. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was one concept which would change the way we shopped forever: the self-service grocery store.

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was one grocery chain who was buying up local chains like Irwins: Jack Cohen’s TESCO. His roots as a barrow boy and hard discounting approach was popular with shoppers. Though stores were opening throughout the UK, his success was hamstrung by a mechanism which controlled the price of merchandise: Resale Price Maintenance.

Such a mechanism would probably be unlawful in the European Union today, and counter to the doctrine of neoliberal economics advocated by today’s governments. In 1964, Resale Price Maintenance was abolished, so shopkeepers could charge any amount for goods no higher than the Recommended Retail Price. RPM was deemed as being against the public interest, unless proven otherwise in certain cases. TESCO would not only prosper from the abolition of Resale Price Maintenance, but other discount stores would follow suit.

In Ashton, the shopping landscape was already changing with Metrolands’ shopping precinct under construction. Hyde would get a pedestrianised shopping centre, whereas Stalybridge would see part of Grosvenor Street and Melbourne Street redeveloped. New supermarkets would be key to the developments; TESCO moved in to Ashton’s and Hyde’s shopping centres with the latter branch sporting escalator access to its second floor; in Stalybridge, Maypole Dairy would gain a bigger store.

The Dawn of the Discounters

In Bow Street, Ashton, the second half of the sixties would see Wood’s Music Shop demolished and replaced by a new supermarket. Entitled Savemore, it would, as the name suggests be a discount store. On Warrington Street, Coopers’ Supermarket became the borough’s first Fine Fare store. Staveleigh Way’s TESCO store would establish itself with local shoppers thanks to Green Shield Stamps.

Quietly emerging on Langham Street was another shopping revolution: Ashton’s ASDA store. Big box superstore chains, with enhanced buying power and cheaper edge of town sites, would also change the scene dramatically, and none more so than Hyde’s Fine Fare store. For a time, Hyde’s Fine Fare Department Store (or Hypermarket if you prefer), was the biggest in Europe when opened by Derek Nimmo in 1976. To draw the shoppers in would be a mix of American style self-service shopping and a bit of hard discounting.

However, it was hard discounting with bare bones layouts which ushered in another discount revolution. Its origin was closer to Tameside than America, Cheshunt or Welwyn Garden City. It began in North Wales, courtesy of Albert Gubay, and his business expanded throughout the 1970s. Interested by the ‘baby shark’ method of hard discounting seen in America and Germany, a trip to Aldi’s West German stores inspired Kwik Save’s business model. Ironically, in later years, the rise of Aldi’s UK stores and a disastrous acquisition by Somerfield would become its downfall.

Kwik Save would expand in places with low incomes, buying up cheap units. Its rise would coincide with a sustained period of high inflation courtesy of rising oil prices, three recessions and record unemployment figures. Some of which included former F.W. Woolworth stores, such as the one on Grosvenor Street, Stalybridge. Others included branches of the Savemore chain, such as the one on Bow Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. A typical 1980s Kwik Save store would see items stored on cardboard boxes rather than shelves, with the exception of frozen items and chilled goods (often stored in a walk-through refrigerator). Greengrocery and butchery sections would be hired out to separate concessionaires.

By the late 1970s, TESCO would continue to expand; the demolition of the George and Dragon and redevelopment of the site resulted in an underground successor. A number of new shops would be anchored by a new TESCO Home and Wear store.

‘All you see, 50p…’: the 1980s

With the 1980 – 1983 recession kicking in, Kwik Save continued to rise, expanding beyond its traditional boundaries of North West England and North Wales. With a push towards bigger stores, the town centre discount stores started to move out. In 1979, Ashton’s Fine Fare became a Shoppers’ Paradise – a more stripped down Fine Fare akin to the Kwik Save principle.

With freezers becoming commonplace in most homes, local shopkeepers realised that their owners appreciated a bargain. The late seventies would see these needs satisfied with the arrival of Snow City to Ashton Indoor Market. Households were able to buy vegetables in smaller quantities than the pre-packed bags seen in supermarkets – a boon if your freezer is a small cabinet at the top of a refrigerator. This was also popular with cost-conscious households and people living on their own. Stalybridge’s answer to Snow City (before they took over) was Polar Pantry on Grosvenor Street.

1985 would see TESCO leave Ashton-under-Lyne; its Staveleigh Way store became a Victor Value, resurrecting a former store chain acquired in 1968. The Home and Wear store became – and remains so today – Iceland. By then, Ashton’s main town centre superstores were Kwik Save, Victor Value and Presto. The final one, taking over the ground floor of Tameside MBC’s TAC Building. Opening in 1981, Presto was originally going to be a branch of British American Tobacco’s short lived Mainstop chain, before being absorbed into their International Stores brand and becoming Presto (sold to Argyll Foods in 1982).

This was flanked by a number of smaller shops facing the bus station. One of them, on two floors was the bargain store ‘The Fullmonte’. On the ground floor was the odd cheapo cans of pop, toffees and toys (they were very good at knock-off Transformer robots), with clothing on the first floor. In 1986, further down Warrington Street, this would be joined by ‘It’s Incredible’, which also took up two floors, in a unit on the corner of Wellington Street near the Post Office.

On Melbourne Street, Stalybridge, The Emporium building was home to one of a number of walk-around shops in the Tameside area. Originally known as The Gift Centre, it was renamed Bottom Dollar. For a short time, there was extra space in the basement which at one point served as a café. Today, Bottom Dollar’s store and its original building are no more, but they moved to another unit on Market Street trading as ‘Yu and Me’. Its chaotic layout was charming and made the store a real Aladdin’s Cave. Today, the true spirit of Bottom Dollar lives on in Vaughan and Lester on Ashworth Street, Denton.

Just off Cavendish Street, next to the BOC depot, was Barlin’s Bargains. This aped the stripped down look and lackadaisical layout of Bottom Dollar – only more cavernous and devoid of sunlight. Like Bottom Dollar, its stock would comprise of cheap toiletries, stationery, household goods and other non-food items.

Over in The Mall at Hyde, the late 1980s saw the arrival of Quality Save, a subsidiary of TJ Morris. With modest beginnings as a market stall in Walkden and a single store in Farnworth, they would later expand in Northern England. After the incorporation of Home and Bargain, they would become a national player. The discount variety store would become big business, with chains supplanting the independent stores. Some like Superdrug and Bodycare would find a niche, which in their cases turned out to be toiletries and medicines, challenging Boots the Chemist.

Increased Competition

By the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, variety discount store chains made their presence known on our High Streets. As well as challenging superstore chains, they would also compete for the same market catered for by F.W. Woolworth’s stores. In October 1989, Kwik Save increased their presence in Ashton, taking on the former Victor Value store on Staveleigh Way. Also in the same year, It’s Incredible took on the former Nurseryland unit on Old Street. By 1992, it would extend into a prefabricated unit behind and change its name to ‘Just Wot U Need’. Bottom Dollar remained popular, though ceased using the basement unit. Instead, it expanded into a former decorators’ shop on the left hand side of The Emporium.

Fighting for the same market as Just Wot U Need and Fullmonte, was a national player by the name of Poundstretcher. Ashton’s store would open on Stamford Street, whereas Hyde’s branch would open on a retail park next to B&Q.

In September 1992, Presto – later Safeway – had vacated their unit under the TAC Building, and became Tameside’s first branch of Wilkinson’s hardware store. The company, already a familiar name in the East Midlands at the time, expanded into Northern England, giving Woolworths a right run for their money. Within twenty years, they would open another two stores in Tameside; one in Droylsden would occupy a retail park unit in the former Co-op Shopping Giant; Hyde’s branch would later occupy a former Co-op, on the corner of Greenfield Street and Market Street.

By 1993, the stakes would increase when Poundland opened its Oldham store in the then new Spindles Shopping Centre. The single price retailer would make a gradual return to our High Streets and shopping centres. Iceland, after acquiring the Bejam chain in 1989, would face competition from Scotland. The Blairlinn, Cumbernauld based Farmfoods chain would vie for the same market as Malcolm Walker’s stores. Their first Tameside branch opened in Denton, close to Crown Point. Hyde’s would open on Market Place and become the borough’s second branch.

In the early 1990s, Kwik Save was sitting pretty, and expanding. New stores would open, often as replacements for smaller less suitable units. This was the case with Stalybridge’s branch in 1993, when they moved to Leech Street. Somewhere in the shadows, Herr Albrecht and Co. (Aldi actually stands for ‘Albrecht Discount’) was eyeing up the UK retail market. Shortly after. Ironically, the store chain which Albert Gubay observed with great interest would prove to be Kwik Save’s undoing after his sale to Somerfield in 1998.

Aldi’s first Tameside branches were based on Oldham Road, Waterloo (now Farmfoods) and on Manchester Road, Hyde (next to Poundstretcher). By the late 1990s, they would become a significant UK player in the hard discounting market. Lidi, part of Germany’s third biggest superstore chain would follow suit in 1994. Tameside’s first branch would open on the site of The Spread Eagle public house and Arcadia Department Store, in the summer of 2000. Denton’s would also occupy a former Co-op store, opening in 2003.

By the late 1990s, it was clear that the discount store, of any variety, would dominate the streets of Tameside. Fifteen years later, into 2014, this was more or less confirmed. After the closure of NORWEB’s showrooms, Stalybridge’s Quality Save became Tameside’s third branch (the second being on Queen’s Walk, Droylsden). With the loss of major employers in the borough (such as Senior Service, James North and Davies and Metcalfe – all in Hyde alone), they were firmly in the driving seat.

In 1998, there was one retail chain who sold short coded food or foodstuffs slightly past the Best Before date. They had four branches; in Glossop, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde and Manchester Arndale Market. Dee Jay’s Discount prospered till 2008 (ironically the year of the Global Financial Downturn, where demand could have been great) and had the same no frills layout of early walk-around shops. Ashton’s branch was on Old Street with Hyde’s occupying the former Lloyds TSB bank opposite the Clarendon Mall (and Lloyds’ present branch).

Fulfilling a similar market to Dee Jay’s Discounts was Pricebuster on Melbourne Street, Stalybridge (2000). They would later move to Manchester Road, Mossley without success. Another, opening in 2001, was D&A Discounts, occupying the former Golden Gander unit now occupied by Cash4Clothes.

Expansion Towards the 21st Century

Soon, discount stores would be everywhere, and their main competition would not only be its bricks and mortar competitors, but also the internet. This time, nationwide discount store chains would dominate the market, thus meaning no room for independent stores. Wilkinson, Quality Save and Home Bargains would expand beyond their core areas. Snow City would be acquired by Hull based Heron Foods, closing the Stalybridge branch shortly afterwards.

Kwik Save would later merge with Somerfield, a move which would prove to be disastrous. At the time, Somerfield was the successor to the Isoceles Group who owned Carrefour’s UK stores, Gateway Foodmarkets and Fine Fare. Their expansion came through the acquisition of International Stores and some Kwik Saves became Somerfield stores, such as the Bow Street branch in Ashton, and Stalybridge’s store on Leech Street (May 1999). The former Fine Fare store in Hyde – later Gateway and Food Giant – became Kwik Save.

Following the sale of the former Food Giant Kwik Save to Morrisons, the Hyde branch moved to the former Co-op department store on Market Street. Droylsden’s would move to a new unit off Greenside Lane, in the former Shopping Giant. On adoption of the Somerfield format, Stalybridge’s branch would retain its neighbouring Global Video store, though its butchers’ concession would move to a unit on Melbourne Street. As part of a new retail development on Wellington Road, Ashton’s Kwik Save was set to move from Staveleigh Way. This didn’t materialise as the site was supposedly cursed.

Originally, all Kwik Save stores would have been converted to the Somerfield format, but this was never the case. Instead, 2006 saw Somerfield’s Kwik Save stores offloaded to a private equity company, with all but a dozen stores closing. The remaining dozen would be rebranded Fresh Xpress stores, and that too was a disastrous move. Therefore, in 2007, Tameside’s surviving Kwik Saves in Ashton and Hyde (Staveleigh Way and Market Street) ceased trading till its very last day. As for the former Kwik Save stores in Stalybridge and Ashton which became Somerfields, they too would leave our streets. Aldi would take on the Leech Street store, whereas an emerging discount chain would take over Ashton’s Bow Street store.

Soon to rival Home Bargains and Quality Save would be Cleveleys based B&M Bargains. They would benefit from Kwik Save’s demise like their rivals from Swinton, and the closure of some smaller TESCO stores. In Tameside, the small TESCO store in Hyde became the borough’s first B&M Bargains. 2007 saw the arrival of Ashton’s branch, in the former Savemore/Kwik Save/Somerfield unit on Bow Street. B&M Bargains – like TJ Morris’ Home Bargains and Quality Save concepts, would also sell a mix of food and non-food goods – as with their founding store in Cleveleys and similar branches in Southport, Leigh and Farnworth.

Though such stores were pretty much in the mainstream among northern shoppers, a global financial downturn would be their making. Not only in Ashton, Stalybridge or Hyde, but also Eltham, Stourbridge and Hythe.

Boom From Bust: the rise of the single price retailer

The 2007 and 2008 financial crises caused a great affect on the wages and livelihoods, thanks to an economy built largely on debt. Not any old debt, but debt from cheap borrowing, sub-prime mortgages and rigged markets. As a consequence, wages were – and remain – depressed compared with 2008 levels. In Iceland, their bankers were jailed. In Britain, they took over the country and tried to blame the public sector for the downturn. Successfully. Successfully enough to usher in a Conservative-led Coalition Government several times more unpopular than piles North of Watford (and Tameside, of course).

Since 2008, the global financial downturn, increased market share of superstore chains and the rise of internet shopping made for a perfect storm among retailers. The original fixed priced retailer Woolworths fell victim, with Ashton’s and Hyde’s stores closing at the start of 2009. By the end of 2009, Frank Winfield Woolworth’s fixed price concept was in full swing – but it was a new and not-so-new breed which took over the mantle.

In the starting grid, Poundland. Founded in 1990, in Burton-upon-Trent, the single price retailer had a firm presence in Northern England by the turn of the 20th Century. Ashton’s store came pretty late to the fold in September 2009, opening on the ground floor of the former Woolworths store. I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here winner Joe Swash cut the ribbon in the Arcades Shopping Centre. Nationwide, Poundland would also be joined by The 99p Store and Family Bargains – both chains yet to have a presence in Tameside.

Before Poundland’s arrival in Ashton, Superpound and Everything £1 were the main players, taking on the former Cantors unit on the corner of Warrington Street and Old Street. Moving to a newly refurbished unit on Staveleigh Way, they would adopt the name ‘Poundworld’. In Hyde and Ashton, Pound Empire expanded from its branch in Manchester city centre, but rents resulted in their closures in 2013. Pound Empire, however, had a smaller second branch in the Clarendon Mall which was retained and still trades today.

What of the independent discount stores, under the shadow of nationwide single price retailers? Bottom Dollar relocated from The Emporium on Melbourne Street to Market Street. Vaughan and Lester remains in good shape, and Pound Zone on Market Street, Hyde still trades. By contrast, Fullmonte left, though this was to do with Tameside MBC changing the Warrington Street units to non-retail use.

Wilkinson, though a national player nowadays, continues to thrive, benefiting from Woolworths’ demise. Since 2007, it has added a branch in Droylsden and Hyde, utilising former Kwik Save units – in former Co-op department stores. As well as Wilkinson and Poundland, Aldi and Lidl benefited from the global financial downturn. So much so that recent results have made a large dent in the profits of TESCO and Morrisons. Not only because of the low prices, but also the quality of their items, which compares well with the more expensive stores.

By the noughties, the UK’s aversion to discount stores would be assuaged by means of quality items. One reason being the fear of the unknown; another, the fear of barracking if your more affluent friend enjoys a gorgeous Sunday dinner which came from Aldi, Lidl or Iceland; thirdly, snobbery – the ‘you went WHERE?’ quid pro quo in relation to B&M Bargains instead of another posh ampersand sporting store chain.

The next part of Tameside’s discount store story refers to the latter retailer sporting an ampersand. In line with most small to medium sized UK towns (Nuneaton a prime example in comparison with Ashton), Warrington Street would lose its Marks and Spencer store, favouring a bigger and cheaper edge of town site. It was hoped that a store of similar stature would take over, but instead, it was another discount store.

Bargain Buys, Ashton’s recent arrival, came about as a non-fixed priced concept for Normanton based Discount UK. Their presence in Ashton is longer than It’s Incredible’s and Just Wot U Need’s, though not as long as Poundstretcher’s (who moved to the Ashton Retail Park in the late 1990s). Since 1998, the company which later became Discount UK had had owned Superpound, before renaming its Superpound stores as Poundworld.

Much to the ire of affluent residents in the borough, the discount store is here to stay, and quite likely to for some time. Discerning customers in search of premium priced products may be prepared to search online, maybe go to Manchester or the Trafford Centre. Small but affluent, mainly middle class places like Glossop, Shaw and Uppermill will continue to offer more specialist goods. As to whether the aforementioned trio have a discount store or two, the answer to that is ‘yes’.

With the effects of the global financial downturn continuing to be felt (and exacerbated by our present government’s policies) in our borough Ken Morrison was right when he said ‘The rich love a bargain, the poor need a bargain’. It is still true today. Somebody please remind our fellows in Bradford!

S.V., 14 March 2014.

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