I came, I saw, I did my sums: You can lead them to a giant warehouse, but you cannot make them spend. Sandra Barwick joins shoppers on Croydon's Purley Way

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Down the A23, on to the flyover, the road widens into treble lanes. Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction. Here, where nearby Croydon's adamantine towers threat the sky, is found not the Pearly Gates but the Purley Way, entrance to an infernal world of 'supastores', where lost souls are condemned eternally to wander warehouse aisles.

At least, so it seems after a few hours' shopping. Here credit cards are swallowed, and bank balances sink. Nonetheless, we all speed to such places, particularly on sunny weekends and Bank Holidays. The Purley Way holds a typical collection of drivearound monster stores set in huge car parks in the American fashion: Carpetright, PC World, Do It All, Homebase, Sainsbury's, Habitat, Curry's, Ikea, Cargo Club, B & Q and more, full of tempting goods.

But the shopper of the Nineties has learnt to resist temptation. The habit of thrift, painfully acquired over the last few years, is not easily discarded, as February's fall in retail sales figures of 0.5 per cent from the previous month showed.

Last Sunday afternoon two typically cautious customers in their mid- twenties were reviving themselves with Danish pastries and coffee in Ikea's bistro. One of them, Julia Spence, an occupational therapist, had just bought her first studio flat and, at Ikea, her first sofa bed. 'I'm calculating down to the last pounds 1.50,' she said. 'The first time I came here was just to look and decide.'

Even her decision to enter the property market had been made to save money. Both she and her friend, Naomi Truscott, who works in publishing and was also on the verge of buying a flat, said that the deciding factor was that it was now cheaper to buy than rent.

'We've come to Ikea because it's cheapest for basic things,' said Julia. 'Habitat is too expensive. I've done that. I was completely depressed. For things like china I might go to John Lewis. The china here is cheap and cheerful.'

The Retail Consortium says that Julia and Naomi are, with these sentiments, bang in the middle of the trend. Shoppers are still very price conscious, but they are also beginning to look for slightly better quality. Ikea, ideally fitted to this climate, is expanding. 'We find British customers are more value-conscious than customers in other countries where we operate,' said Olle Hofvander, head of marketing. 'Things started to move last June. The whole year has been tremendously positive.'

Among fearful shoppers a kind of consumerist camaraderie seems to have broken out. As I gazed at a display in the new B & Q warehouse, a man sidled up to me and hissed: 'That's half price across the road, you know] They're all buying it there.'

'We bought a one-bedroom flat a year and a half ago,' said Donna Cowan, an electronics engineer from Streatham, with her partner, Sean, a carpenter, pushing a B & Q trolley.

'We only bought because renting was higher. We deliberately took a mortgage that was less than we could afford, in case one of us lost our jobs, and we're doing it up room by room.'

The fear of unemployment seemed the biggest brake on spending, despite the 38,000 fall in last month's jobless figures. No one by the Purley Way even mentioned the new tax year's increases. The habit of carefulness, once learnt, is hard to abandon. 'People are doing cheering-up buying,' said Donna, pointing to two pots of heather and some grass seed, 'rather than major stuff.'

At one of Ikea's tills, all 24 of which seemed to be 10 deep, was Rowena Martin, her trolley full of pine shelving for a new toyshop she is opening in Tunbridge Wells next week, one of the new small businesses on which Mr Heseltine is pinning so much hope for the economy's revival. Her shop had grown out of a successful part-time selling operation - and careful control of overheads. 'We rang round,' she said. 'This is the cheapest place.'

Nearby is a new Cargo Club, among the latest of the region's echoing caverns. Here is a new twist to the torture of supastore shopping. Not only are there the long aisles to walk, hard on the feet, the myriad displays disorientating to the brain, but the system seems designed to add to a shopper's social insecurity.

Sad faces gazed up at the boards listing the various, mainly professional classes who are allowed to pay an entrance fee for the privilege of shopping there. 'Do you think I'd

be allowed?' said one man wistfully.

Outside the store was an old-fashioned sight - a family struggling towards their car, laden down with goods. 'We're only here because there was nothing on TV,' said Julian Brown of Selsdon in deliberate parody of Eighties-speak, as he struggled to fit a large mirror into the back of his red BMW. 'We bought this because it was only pounds 35 and now I don't think it's going to fit in the car. We didn't need these big flower pots, but they were only pounds 3 each. It's like when you go to Sainsbury's, innit? You always spend more than you intend to.'

But his attitude seemed exceptional. Cargo's chasms were dotted with figures, but many of them held visitor's cards, only looking. The sheer number of superstores by the Purley Way means that the customer can be both fickle and demanding. The Do It All store, early on Sunday afternoon, for instance, was three-quarters empty, owing, one assistant thought, to the fact that people were checking out the new B & Q down the road.

'I expect they'll be back,' she said, in the tones of one who is used to the ways of the wandering shades on Croydon's Purley Way.

(Photograph omitted)