Thrifty living: The lurking danger of 'find your size and flick through'

"Still overdrawn?" laugh my friends Sara and Andy as we prepare to barge forth on the Regent's Park 10K yomp in gale-force winds and driving rain. It's handy for me that running is one of those sports that is VERY CHEAP that is, if you can ignore the Stella McCartney gear, iPod carriers, Nike wind-proof socks and fashionable Adidas trainers. If you are happy to run in an old long-sleeved T-shirt and some shorts, as I am doing, the whole thing becomes laughably affordable. And hopefully rather chic, in a counter-revolutionary manner.

Yet avoiding brands is tough. They are an ever-present temptation. Just look at the number that pop up every week beside me on this double spread. And yes, I would rather be running in padded Nike running pants and a chic little yellow-and-black Nike jacket. Pathetic, I know. And pointless. During the race, the only outfit in the 300-strong field I actually notice is the one belonging to an older white-haired gentleman. Keep those red trousers in sight, I tell myself. It will get you round.

The day after the race I limp into discount merchandiser TK Maxx, whose entire raison d'être is the power of the brand. With up to 60 per cent off, that is. "Look, an Edina Ronay jacket," says my guide, Helen Gunter, from TK Maxx head office. "Was 40, now reduced to 20. And here, a Ronit Zilkha coat, or Sass and Bide jeans, or look at this! Levi 570 jeans, down from 80 to 24.99."

We wander around the vast Hammersmith store, a shed of clothes organised only by size and hung on endless metal rails. Lift music plays. So, how different is TK Maxx from, say, Primark? "Ugh!" recoils Gunter. "We are absolutely not the same as Primark. We are all about brands!"

Oh, sorry. The TK Maxx model, lifted from its giant US-based parents TJX and Marshalls, is to flog branded clothes at bargain-basement prices. Legions of buyers visit thousands of vendors across Europe that are anxious to off-load stuff: companies in liquidation, such as Ronit Zilkha, or shops hoping to do deals. "We buy opportunistically," Gunter says.

The clothes come in daily to the 220 TK Maxx stores in the UK. "Go to your size, and then flick through," Gunter says. There is no guarantee that you will find what you want, but you might find a bargain. "Some people come in here on a daily basis," says Gunter. Frankly, if I found I was popping into TK Maxx on a daily basis I would seriously begin to worry about my health.

"Look, a Ben Sherman shirt, only 19.99, down from 50," says Gunter. "Men love us because we don't hassle them. They just find their size and then flick through. Look. Yves Saint Laurent. It's all about using brands as a signpost to quality."

We head to the watches and jewellery section. "Givenchy watches," sighs Gunter. She looks about to tell me to "find my size, and flick through". Instead, she gazes ecstatically around the neon-lit environment. "This is not a pound shop. It's about the buzz of getting a great deal."

In the home section, Denby china jostles against Portmerion, and the shelves bulge with towels from poor old Ronit Zilkha and dozens of velvet cushions, all at knock-down prices. "People just come in with an open mind, and pick up what they want," Gunter says.

This free-wheeling notion would be utterly disastrous for a shopper anything like myself. All that keeps me on the straight and narrow is to have a list and to stick to it. However, there are presumably thousands of open-minded shoppers out there: TK Maxx's yearly turnover is 1bn.

Now that we are all riding the credit crunch, TK Maxx probably senses that the time is right for expansion, and has big plans to further invade the high street. "Our main rival is probably a shop like Debenhams," Gunter says. "We are moving away from being apologetically down a side road. In Cardiff, we have taken over a former department store and are right there on the high street." Kids Maxx and Caf Maxx are on the way, as is a departure into golf gear for the likes of Mr Millard, and er, running gear, for the likes of moi.

It may be bargain-basement, but I still advise anyone wanting to keep a hold on their money to come into TK Maxx with a list. "Finding my size, and flicking through", for me, would signal financial disaster.

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