Crunch time: Our writers hit the high street

As recession looms, consumers are tightening their belts as never before. We gave three retail experts £50 each and sent them in search of better value on the high street

Janet Street-Porter buys her groceries at Netto

I've got to admit, shopping at Netto is a bit like class-A drugs – not something I'm that keen on doing on a regular basis. I reckon I am already pretty good at shopping economically – I'm a good cook, grow vegetables and published a book earlier this year which included my tips for simpler living. I've been weaning myself off supermarkets – as I believe that overall they don't offer real bargains – and I want to support small shops and local suppliers. Now I only visit Tesco to buy printer paper, knickers, wine and face cream – so I'm not exactly a typical customer.

Netto in Northallerton is just down the road from a massive Tesco, but the difference is striking. Netto is an uninviting box with no windows, not that different from the branch of Kwik Fit on the next corner. The layout inside was confusing, and I spent ages trying to understand how they could muddle up flour, wine, batteries and beer ... Where was Parmesan? Answer: not available. Where was that staple of economy cooking, lentils, either tinned or dried? Not available. Environmentally friendly washing powder, recycled bog rolls and kitchen paper? Not available. Economy shopping in Netto means you can forget about namby-pamby middle-class concerns like air miles and carbon footprints. To shop here, you need to stop obsessing about buying British or from local suppliers.

The good news first: a two-litre bottle of Filippo Berio extra-virgin olive oil was just £7.99. This is a well-known brand and a real bargain. Close inspection of the label says it is "packed in Italy" but does not say where the actual oil comes from. Still, it tasted perfectly OK when I splashed it over my home-grown rocket salad for lunch, which is more than I could say for the cherry vine tomatoes, which were 99p (the most popular price for Netto products) and came from Spain. They were flavourless, not a patch on Marks & Spencer's. The Norwegian smoked salmon (a snip at £1.99) was OK, but mystifyingly the packet said it was packed in Lithuania. The biggest bargain was a packet of pasta quills at 19p – I bought two. They were made in Italy from durum wheat. Taste-wise, I was thrilled with the Walkerswood Jamaican chutney at just 79p – made with pure ingredients, including mango, papaya, bell peppers, ginger and garlic. It tasted fabulous on my pork pie from the local butcher. Which brings me to meat and veg – there were no free-range chickens and no organic meat, so I didn't buy any. Instead I bought smoked mackerel – not dyed and good value at £1.19 – and a decent-sized tub of crayfish tails for a prawn cocktail or a pasta sauce for just £1.99. Not enough of the fresh fruit and the veg came from the UK – there were no British peas or broad beans – but of the stuff that did, I got a very good cauliflower for 59p, chestnut mushrooms for 99p, a swede for 34p, waxy potatoes at 75p and spring onions for 49p. The strawberries were British, but at 99p a punnet didn't seem good value compared to tastier local ones on sale at the greengrocer down the road for less than £2 for a much bigger punnet. Two bottles of Cloudy Bay merlot rosé at £5.99 a pop and a Wolf Blass sauvignon blanc for £4.49 represented good value (my attitude is, if you're broke, try not to skimp on life's pleasures, like decent wine and good bread). Netto didn't sell fresh herbs or decent bread-making flour and the free-range eggs had shells so thin that two broke on the way home.

My vegetable patch is bursting with salad greens, herbs, radishes, spinach and chard – all stuff easily grown in a window box. I still believe that eating well on a budget can be achieved without relying on supermarkets. Netto came up with some bargains, but there were also conspicuous gaps in their stock. Nevertheless, you could live for a week on what I bought for £49.96, with just Parmesan, bread flour and fresh herbs bought elsewhere. I also bought fat balls for my bird table – the only two-for-one offer I fell for – and they cost (you've guessed it) 99p!

Peter York finds interiors inspiration at Poundland

I'll go anywhere. I can't pass a shop selling books, and I developed the Portobello Road street-market habit in my teens. I've got a sort of compressed Portobello near me now: Church Street Market off Edgware Road – smart antiques at the top, barrows at the bottom. On the barrows there's fruit and veg – four caulis for £1 late on Saturday afternoons – and masses of familiar bathroom and kitchen brands in slightly unfamiliar packs. So I reckoned I could beat Janet and John anyday in extracting max value for my home from Poundland on Kilburn High Road. Besides which, I felt I absolutely knew Kilburn because I used to live nearby.

What I hadn't fully grasped is that over the past decade, Kilburn High Road has gone from being merely sad to becoming one giant perpetual All Nations market. You could never accuse it of being a clone high street. The usual rows of Anytown shops (Boots, Next, WH Smith, Clarks, Mothercare) are replaced here by a line-up that involves store-front barkers with loudspeakers, hangers of clothes on the street, and lots of discounters of practically everything. Along from Poundland there's an even bigger shop – 99p Land.

I've been to Poundland before and I reckoned it'd be a doddle. I'd be out in 20 minutes with £50 worth of Really Useful Things. I'd got three categories in mind. First, familiar branded things you buy all the time – toothpaste, soap, etc – at big discounts. Second, useful objects that'd cost £5 to £15 at a silly price instead – a cauliflower slicer, say, or a bruised fruit pulveriser. And, finally, because I've got The Eye, luridly kitsch underclassy objects that you'd never see in refined places like M&S homewares. Acrylic bedcovers with daft animals on them, dishcloths with religious injunctions, funny wrapping paper. All that.

Actually Poundland has become tremendously tidy and well-organised. It feels like a big chain – and it is – with a very efficient back office. So a lot of the daftness of the market has been edited out in favour of things real people might actually need, laid out in a rather confusing circuit of mini-departments – house, garden, car, children, pets, etc. The sobering thought is that you need to learn a shop like Poundland so you know instinctively what's where, and then visit it regularly to catch the bargains. The stock changes all the time as Poundland Central buys a Cancelled Order of this or that, originally meant for Uzbekistan or Thailand. It'll all be gone by Monday. Otherwise you flounder, just buying things because they're dirt cheap.

Forget the glorious kitsch for a start. I couldn't see any. I got some smart, spotty carrier bags for packing presents and some spiky, rubber ball things that apparently have a role in the tumble drier. That's it. On the really useful front, there was little I hadn't got, but I bought stainless steel forks (five for £1) and knives (naff pattern on the handle). And then because our photographer, Andy, saw the point of them, some aluminium drink bottles for the Tour de France. And a lightweight aluminium hip flask. And a one-cup Thermos affair which might be nice for a tartan-rug-ish long car journey.

As far as the branded staples go ... by this stage, I couldn't even remember what toothpaste I normally get, let alone what it costs in Tesco. Still, I bought a lot of familiar under-the-sink things – Cif, Dettol, Finish, J-Cloth lookalikes, kitchen roll, aluminium foil, sponge scourers – and they all seemed cheap to me.

And, at the margin, some food. Comfort staples – a tin of corned beef and one of stewed steak (an unknown Brazilian brand), two tins of lovely Ambrosia Creamed Rice for £1. And even eight cherry muffins.

But still I felt I'd failed. For a start I only managed to spend £35 after several circuits. And the bundle looked pretty incoherent as they packed it up. Plus, there were makeweights I'd never use. But there was an awful lot for the money. If I'd been a family buying across the house-car-kids-garden range, it would have diluted my weekly bill very usefully. And made core equipment – tumblers, cheese graters, etc – highly affordable.

Did I mention the gravy boat? Plain, porcelain, 1935 design-classic look. Cancelled order for Woolies "My Home" range. Marginal utility but really nice. It's hard owning up to your inner Marie Antoinette.

John Walsh gets a whole new look at Primark

Of course, I'd been to Primark before. If you're the father of pre-teen girls, it becomes like a second home. There are three branches of the chain within half an hour of my home, and I've been wheedled into visiting them all. They target the "tweenie" market by selling little-girl clothes at little-girl prices. My daughter's wardrobe is crammed with acid-green tops, orange slogans with baffling captions, pink ruffled skirts and 50p knickers in jolly colours. It's like shopping in a huge doll's house.

I, who have occasionally been known to have suits made to measure, stroll about the shop with a long-suffering air, hoping nobody I know will see me there. One would never buy anything serious from such a low-rent place. Would one?

The powers that run this august journal gave me £50. Get yourself, they said, kitted out at Primark from head to feet. Take that expression off your face. Don't be such a snob. So I went.

The Bromley branch was crowded and stuffy as a lift. Static from a thousand polyester blouses crackled in the air. The men's department was full of short-sleeved shirts in frankly horrible stripy patterns. Every one of them would instantly have made the wearer look like a Southern redneck wife-beater. Even the amazingly low prices (£5-£8) couldn't compensate. The formal menswear range is called Butler & Webb and offers jackets and suits in (mostly) off-puttingly synthetic materials – the manageress, Suzanne, explained that some were even machine-washable (and extremely popular as a result). You could, I suppose, try impressing your girlfriend in one, but no woman of any taste would fail to spot the giveaway shine.

The Cedarwood casual range offers some perfectly OK plain shirts, dirt cheap, and far too many with horrible patterns. Looking at the latter, I felt as if I'd strayed into Arding & Hobbs department store in Clapham Junction, circa 1970. Primark famously buys cheaply in colossal bulk, and the evidence was there: approximately 200 grey slacks in a single style, guaranteed to make you instantly resemble a golfing bore; 200 pairs of sludge-green combat trousers with zip-tags and otiose knee-pockets. You could kit out an army from the Primark menswear section, I thought, but you'd be hard-put to cut an individual dash in any of the garments.

Then I spotted a jacket in that stone/cream/grey colour that drains the blood from the most rubicund face. Surprisingly, it looked OK. It felt fine: 55 per cent linen, 45 per cent cotton. And it cost £19. Whaaat? Was it available in a 44 Long? No way. (Nothing ever is, in my experience.) Only a 42 Long or a 46 regular. I was about to give up when I noticed the trousers: the same linen-cotton mix and colour, but there was a variant shade, of avocado green. I tried on both in my size and they fitted. And they cost £8 each.

Could it be true that there exists, anywhere in the ruinously expensive metropolis, a suit that wouldn't disgrace your name for ever, that could be worn in fashionable bars, and that costs £27? Incredible. I tried on the size 46 jacket. It was slightly too big, boxy and boring, but almost fitted. Twinned with the trousers, it became the suit a raffish adventurer in the tropics – an Our Man in Havana – might wear, with a straw hat. I ran back to the shirt racks. Among the horrible patterns through which I'd flicked so dismissively, there'd been a fitted, blood-red number that would go nicely with the suit. It was there. It fitted. It cost £4.

At the check-out, I threw caution to the wind and bought both pairs of trousers, the jacket and shirt. The final bill was £39 – amazing value, if you have no qualms about clothes being mass-produced in low-wage countries. I could even have shelled out on two more shirts without breaking the budget.

I've now worn the suit, perfectly happily, all week, heedless of the toll that London takes on light-coloured material. You get rather blasé about clothing when the cost of dry-cleaning your new jacket is greater than the cost of buying it.

So count me in, Primark. I'm a convert. But it's our little secret, OK?

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