Poundland are cynical con-artists

We make so many consumer purchases now, that we don’t think about them or educate ourselves about what we are buying. We often go for the easy metric, which for most of us is price. The modern consumer is thus often price-conscious and value blind, and places like Poundland play to this. They simplify the price bit, so as a result value is simple never mind the quality, count the quantity. After all, Martin Lewis shops at Poundland, so it’s gotta be good, right?

everything's 93p this week. suspicious minds might think it's due to the <99p shop that's opened opposit to replace QD

everything’s 93p this week. suspicious minds might think it’s due to the 99p store opened across the way :)

Poundland had a discount offer when I was in town, so I thought I’d take advantage of it to uncover some subtle price-gouging

Batteries. So many. Such good value. So cheap. So, er - crap? Zinc Chloride? Why'd they bother importing this shite from China, FFS?

Batteries. So many. Such good value. So cheap. So, er – crap? Zinc Chloride? Why’d they bother importing this shite from China, FFS?

Such good value. 10 batteries for less than £1. Bargain! Pile ‘em high and flog ‘em cheap. An ermine’s inquisitive snout was piqued, and I encountered battery technology that was already identified as seriously second-rate in the 1970s of my schooldays.

1311_zncl_P1060127

Yup. Before Sex And the City polluted our minds with a different sort of pink battery powered rabbit, there was the Duracell Bunny, that tireless campaigner for the alkaline battery made by the Mallory Corporation.

In the 1960s and 1970s all common batteries were of the zinc-carbon or zinc chloride type. They were crap – they had sod all capacity, and started to fade as soon as you started using them. Mallory batteries were the non plus ultra of the battery world then – longer lasting and only fading in terminal voltage towards the end of their useful life.

promoted heavily, these took ever so slightly longer to leak and wreck your battery compartment than the SP2 variant. Poundland's bringing back 40-year old technology because people are price sensitive and quality-blind

Promoted heavily in the 1970s, but still crap, these zinc chloride batteries took ever so slightly longer to leak and wreck your battery compartment than the SP2 zinc carbon variant.

However, service life wasn’t really the main problem – after all in those distant days the only battery powered devices in common use were torches and transistor radios, none of the widespread motorised and heavy loads of today. The reason we moved on from zinc chloride battery technology was this

zinc chloride battery failure mode

zinc chloride battery failure mode

The suckers eat the zinc metal casing in the process of generating power, or even sitting on the shelf due to self-discharge. Eventually the gunk inside gets to break out and ruin your device. Charming, eh?

In theory these are ideal for low power devices that are used rarely, such as clocks and remote controls. However, unless you religiously change all the batteries every year, the blighters will leak and gunk up your devices, and corrode the contacts. You need to wash out all the gunk 1, then dry the battery compartment out. Then remove the corrosion from the battery terminals because it is insulating and gives you ratty intermittent behaviour. A Dremel with the brass, not steel brush on slow works well, as does wet and dry used dry. Steel wool can work, but you easily get strands of steel left behind which is all very exciting when introduced to a battery.

Let’s get some science into the subject. One of the great things that has happened in electronics over the last 10 years while I was sitting behind screens coding after The Firm got out of hardware has been the introduction of the microcontroller, a simple single-chip microprocessor and associated bits. In Europe we tend to favor the Atmel range with Arduino, but because of my interest in low-power sensor design I use the US-favoured PIC series, and constructed this panjandrum to measure the service life of these batteries.

Poundland battery tester

Poundland battery tester

Every minute it reports the voltage and current from the batteries running through a 2.5V torch bulb, the third bulb is maintained at 2.5V to provide a reference. It transmits the signal using radio to a datalogger. I got a camera to take a picture every 15 minutes, as a video the results are reasonably clear.

The left-hand bulb is powered by the ‘cheap’ battery that Poundland sell for 9p, the middle is powered by the ‘dearer’ alkalines they sell at about 17p.

Alkalines - only six, not 10. I will sprt the £2 one day to test how much more capacity these have than the cheap ones

Alkalines – only six, not 11. Obviously dearer then.

It all happens a bit quickly in the video, but the results from the datalogger clearly show that you get more than twice as much power from the alkalines, and they have a much more stable terminal voltage too.

Battery life of alkaline and zinc chloride batteries in Poundland

Battery life of alkaline and zinc chloride batteries in Poundland

If we take the service life as the time for the battery voltage to drop by a third to 2V (for two 1.5V batteries in series, which is the most common torch configuration) then you get 1.7 hours from the cheap ones and 5.8 hours from the alkalines. Therefore the twice as dear batteries last three-and-a-half times as long. You get 1690mAh from the alkalines and a lousy 481 mAh from the zinc chloride batteries if you run them to the 1V/cell point.

special offer at Poundland - woohoo

special offer at Poundland – woohoo

Nowhere does Poundland or the original manufacturer  provide you with the information you need to make an informed choice here. It’s particularly crap that Kodak/Strand don’t provide this info on their website – WTF is the point of the website if they don’t give you details of the battery capacity? It’s full of waffle and garbage about Kodak’s trade dress. George Eastman must be turning uncomfortably in his grave at what the stupid tossers have done in turning a  pinnacle of research and innovation into a purveyor of ‘trade dress’ to tart up cheap Chinese batteries so that Western consumers can be fooled into paying more for less by pound/dollar stores. Instead of useful capacity info, there’s some meaningless waffle

Is this suitable for a torch? Buggered if I know, what does low powered equipment mean?

Are these ZnCl batteries suitable for a torch? Buggered if I know, what exactly does low powered equipment mean, Kodak?

What does it all mean? Damned if I know, and I’m a chartered engineer and worked in the electronics industry for many years. What does low power mean? Is the 300mA of my torch bulb low power or high power, Kodak?  How do I check my device for suitability? Where do the words ‘Heavy Duty’ fit in with ‘low power’ you oxymoronic gits? Let’s take a hint from the old geezer Lord Kelvin, who quoth thusly 130 years ago

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.

Lord Kelvin

Lecture on Electrical Units of Measurement” (3 May 1883)

Howsabout it? I’d say by the piss poor performance of the ‘cheap’ batteries that the low power line should be drawn at about 50mA, but I wouldn’t normally think of a torch as a high power device. 2 A shaver, yes, a kid’s RC toy, yes, digital camera, yes, Carrie’s SATC pink rabbit probably yes, but a torch?

Bet Carrie uses alkalines. It's a high power device - doing a lot of work ;)

Bet Carrie uses alkalines. It’s a high power device ;) As the man said in the ad, Duracell batteries can make fun times last a lot longer. ’nuff said.

In terms of the energy you are buying 3, which is what you buy batteries for, the dear batteries are in fact the cheaper ones and the cheaper batteries are the expensive way of buying power. The cost of running a 2-cell torch with cheap ZnCl batteries is 10p/hr and the cost of running the same torch with dear batteries is 5p/hr. Plus you get to change them a third as often and a reduced risk of gunkage which has to be worth something in itself.

It was plainly obvious that Poundland were shifting a lot more of the ZnCl batteries, cynically abusing their customers’ inability to make the right call with the information supplied, and marketing the ‘lots of batteries for a pound’ to make twice as much money out of their customers. While doing this they’re shipping twice as much weight from China and creating twice as much waste. No doubt they would say they are simply providing consumer choice, it’s out of our hands. There’s a lack of integrity in selling things like this. I can think of only one use for the ZnCl batteries, which is if you are going to give a child a toy for Christmas that makes an irritating noise then you may be prepared to pay double for your power so the pain only lasts a third as long ;) But you really should ask yourself some searching questions about what you are doing and the example you’re setting in that case…

We discovered that in the 1970s that you get longer runtimes from alkalines, and you don’t get to chisel corrosion out of your kit, but it seems Poundland is taking advantage of generations who don’t remember that – I don’t recall seeing many ZnCl batteries for sale in the 1990s or early 2000s though they never totally disappeared. Poundland is promoting an obsolete 40-year old technology because people have become price sensitive and quality-blind, so they can make more money out of them. The value for money equation has two sides – the value you get and the money you pay for it. Focusing just on the money side leads you to rotten value at times. We seem to have become inured to that, and become trained like Pavlov’s dogs to always follow the lowest price in a race to the bottom. You’ve got the science here. Don’t buy trash, it’s better for your wallet and better for the environment ;)

Poundland also sell a lot of gizmos to discharge those batteries so you come back for more. Take this battery discharger

 

Can't use rechargeables

Can’t use rechargeables

It draws 15mA from two AA batteries. You will observe Poundland reminding you to go get yer batteries bottom left.

AA alkalines - great (probably okay on zinc chloride too, the terminal voltage is the same)

AA alkalines – great (probably okay on zinc chloride too, the terminal voltage is the same)

These things are designed not to work right from rechargeable batteries 4, which is by far the cheapest way to run standalone Christmas lights. Remember I was paying 21p/kWh from the mains and £72/kWh to Poundland for their alkaline batteries. Even if I lose 5x the power in the inefficiency of the charger and battery cycle 5 I’m 70 times better off. As an added bonus I can get 1/3 more runtime from a 2400mAh rechargeable. However, if you try that you will find the LED string is dim as a Toc H lamp and no earthly use to anyone.

Gutless at 1mA with rechargeables

Gutless at 1mA with rechargeables

I went to Poundland last year after Christmas to see if they were selling Christmas stock off cheap, but they weren’t – they’d cleared the shelves overnight for a new range of junk. I wanted about 20 of these things, because an Ermine can make these work with rechargeables – you order three-battery switched battery boxes on Ebay, wait three weeks to get them from China and then unsolder the wire from the old two cell battery box and swap the resistor to run the LED string at 20mA off three NiMH rechargeable cells. I get to reuse the original two cell box elsewhere. On taking this to pieces I discovered what Poundland did with their unsold Christmas stock from 2012.

What Poundland do with the unsold stuff - store in in a damp environment for next year, I guess ;)

What Poundland do with the unsold stuff – store in in a damp environment for next year, I guess ;)

They store it somewhere damp and flog it to us next year ;) The 20Ω series resistor looks just ready to short against the battery terminals too. You can’t get the staff anymore in China it seems…

So overall I think it’s game, set and match. Poundland are cynically selling an obsolete battery technology to extract more money from customers, along with devices that can’t use rechargeable batteries. But of course it’s a discount store and everything’s only £1 so it’s great value. Kodak can do with a mention is a supporting role, along with Strand Europe with a gong for most useless website of the year award.

Welcome to the World of KODAK Batteries

Strand Europe are delighted to present to you the world of KODAK Batteries. From the brand known as its excellence in photography over many decades, comes a range of quality batteries to compete with the very best in the market. Enjoy browsing our site to see how we can support you in your use of our products.

Support us in any way other than telling us some basic facts like the capacity and the absent great big warning that using these batteries may knacker your gear.

 

Notes:

  1. obviously without soaking your item in water or getting it into the works
  2. I was slightly unfair on Kodak when I wrote this, as I’ve since discovered this page which indicates that these are suitable “For common household appliances, our zinc-chloride heavy duty range is meant for everyday use such as toys, flashlights, clocks and remote controls”
  3. the energy available during the service life was 0.6Wh for ZnCl and 2.2Wh for alkalines. I paid £141/kWh for ZnCl and £72/kWh for the alkalines, as opposed to 21.4p/kWh from the wall socket from those nice Frenchmen at EDF
  4. rechargeables have a terminal voltage of 1.2V as opposed to 1.5V, and it is the 0.6V lower voltage that conveniently stops you using them with the Poundland lights
  5. this is an overestimate – you lose about 14% of the power over the battery charge/recharge cycle
10 Nov 2013, 6:34pm
by BeatTheSeasons


Excellent rant! It’s quite fun in Poundland trying to spot the flaw in each product.

You can currently buy 100 AAs in Maplin for £14.99 so that works out cheaper than the Poundland alkalines, albeit for a larger quantity.

What about lithium batteries? We usually buy those for our digital camera but even in Maplin they’re £1 each. Are we getting sensible value for money with those or should we be going down the rechargeable route?

Poundland is a really weird place, isn’t it? Some of their products are actually a good basis for making something better like the Xmas lights but they’re not great as sold.

Digital cameras are much better suited to rechargeables, which have a lower internal resistance so you can get more of the capacity at high current drains.

I had an Olympus E20 camera and was shooting in the night at Trafalgar Square years ago. The NiMH set I was using ran out and I went to a store and bought some Duracell alkaline AAs – that camera only got about 20 shots before it conked out, I was flabbergasted – I’d get a few hundred on rechargeables. Those batteries were fine in a torch, but the peak current demand of that camera was over 1A when focusing, which is a tough ask even for alkaline AAs, but a doddle for NiMH or NiCd AAs. See Fig.4 on battery university for more detail. It seems you get more endurance from Li primaries than rechargeables but there’s not a huge amount in it and the cost will rapidly favour rechargeables. I don’t normally use non-rechargeable batteries at all, with the exception of smoke alarms, clocks and remote controls because the self-discharge of old rechargeables meant you wouldn’t get a year out of them. I change the clock and smoke alarm batteries every New Year’s day.

Whatever you do, if you go rechargeable get a smart recharger that senses battery voltage, and ideally one that charges each cell separately. Your rechargeable batteries last a lot longer that way.

And eventually, to keep it at £1, the number of batteries will lessen over time and the quality of the batteries are only going to get worse. I recalled that is how they maintain the price at £1 in the inflation by reducing its amount and quality. Eventually, there is a point where it go too far.

Cheers,
Joe

What happens to all those zinc chloride batteries when they are discharged, zinc chloride doesn’t sound like it would be bio-degradable!

@JSP – maybe Poundland with become the two-pound shop or the £5 shop as inflation rolls on ;)

@Richard I don’t think zinc, zinc chloride and ammonium chloride are particularly hazardous to the environment. They can be recycled – this firm shows how they do it. I didn’t observe any battery recycling bins at Poundland however, though wikipedia asserts they are Britain’s biggest seller of batteries!

12 Nov 2013, 11:39am
by Jonathan of Cambridge


Well, yes, but if you watch the on-screen text at the end of any Duracell TV advert, you’ll see that their “better life” claims are in comparison to zinc chloride batteries. To which most engineers would cry “I should hope so too!”.

Of course alkaline is better than zinc chloride (except not if you can;t afford alkaline, because you’re poor). Duracell is just as guilty of bedazzling consumers as 97p-land is.

I bought some cheap zinc chloride AA’s (79p for 12) not expecting much but discovered a new wrinkle. Each battery was about 2/3 of the weight you might expect so I got exceptionally brief life, now that was the authentic 70’s battery experience.

@Jonathan – in 1970s UK Duracell were the only consumer source of alkaline batteries as far as I recall, so they were making a fair point at that time! That bunny ad must be from the early 1980s by the intonation of the voices etc

>I didn’t observe any battery recycling bins at Poundland

Apparently they do have bins – but you may have to ask to see them!
http://www.which.co.uk/news/2011/05/poundland-and-lidl-finally-offer-battery-recycling-boxes-252315/

15 Nov 2013, 11:57am
by BeatTheSeasons


Let’s hope they’re not like the recycling bins we had when I worked at Somerfield, which were for PR purposes only, and regularly emptied into the main skip!

21 Nov 2013, 1:14am
by fellow imperial college now living in USA


A few days later after reading this and appreciating that I need to avoid zinc chloride batteries, I realized just how brilliant and comprehenisve this aticle iss. It is always nice to learn something new and uselfull ie zinc chloride vs alkalide batteries, but the article as a whole is a complete life lesson – obvisously the chemistry of batteries, that hands on physics where you are testing the batteries longevity, the photography to record the results, ethics of poundland, physchology of the dip stick that always buys cheapest, economics, environmental impact…I would put this on the ciriculum for late teenagers. First they need to see the sense in spending less than you earn before this would mean anything to them, I know that 30 years ago at that age I had no concept of needing to save money.

I never thought about batteries much, and most of my stuff is rechargeable these days (wireless mouse for example), but I do remember buying cheap batteries for my old gray-scale gameboy with whatever pocket money I could scrounge together years ago. There were a few times they leaked all over it, which was horrible, because it was my pride and joy. Now I know why… I probably wouldn’t have had the patience to save up for better batteries at that age though, even if I knew how much better they were.

I’ve often wondered about this, are you better off with a big pack of cheapo batteries or going for quality? Well now I finally know. Great work! Now I don’t feel so bad about my ‘How much is this?’ jokes when I was younger.

Interesting rant, and I learned something. What more could I want? To be fair to Poundland, if you’re suckered in by the marketing then you’re fair game. The same could be said about Apple at the other end of the scale. I know the supermarkets fume that if you buy their value ranges and promos, they’re generally cheaper than this lot….but it’s hard to feel sorry for Tesco and Walmart.

I really need to get some rechargable batteries – go through hundreds what with wireless mouse, headphones etc.
Do you recommend any in particular?

@Sandra > I probably wouldn’t have had the patience to save up for better batteries at that age though, even if I knew how much better they were.

an early example of the power of hyperbolic discounting, eh ;) I’ll ‘fess up though, I didn’t get this right as a teenager either, though I probably did know the difference theoretically.

@Adam, Jim glad you enjoyed the rant. What surprised me with this experiment is how much poorer _value_ the cheap batteries were. With Poundland what hacks me off is that the consumer is not provided with the information to make an informed choice. The information isn’t available at the point of sale and it isn’t available on the Strand website. Although the capacity of both types of battery does vary with load, it’s not beyond the wit of man to cite the capacity for a low drain of say 20mA and for a higher drain of 500mA, and provide the consumer with the information the former is typical for clocks and the latter for incandescent torches and motorised toys.

@Jim I had an Apple rant earlier on, although I’ve softened my position a little. The user experience with Apple gear does seem to be better IMO precisely because it’s in a controlled environment. The price you pay for that is both price – because there’s no competition, and a loss of freedom to do what you want w/o jailbreaking.

@Sara rechargeables are simpler than primary batteries because the most common consumer AA technology, NiMH, has a capacity that doesn’t vary too much with normal discharge rate so they print the capacity on the side, in mAH. Typical capacities range from 1500 mAH to 2400 mAH for AA cells. Relative runtime is directly proportional to the capacity, your alkalines are typically 1600mAH, so how much you’re prepared to pay depends on how much you hate charging the batteries to recharge them. 2000mAH seems to be the sweet spot price-wise for AA cells, it goes up a lot to push out to 2400mAH

You also get two classes of these – some lose their charge relatively quickly – leave them unused for a couple of months and you will find only about half the capacity. OTOH they’re cheaper – a better match for the wireless headphones which you probably use every day so you want the highest capacity regular ones – you’re trading off the bother of changing them more frequently against capital cost. If you use them only rarely but don’t want the faff of charging before use, then get the ‘precharged’ sort that hold their charge better.

I guess the mouse if used reasonably often – if you find yourself changing batteries more often than once every two months use regular batteries, if less often than that then use the precharged sort, You ought to get roughly the same service life from 1800mAH rechargeables as from alkaline batteries.

I get most of mine from Maplin, but beware that Maplin’s ones are ever so slightly oversize – so they don’t fit well in my photo flash units

Oh and never, ever, buy them cheap from China on ebay. I knew as soon as I opened the package that I had been suckered for ‘2400mAH’ AA cells – they just weren’t heavy enough, and the performance was about half that.

If you use a smart charger, and ideally keep your batteries in groups with the kit they’re used in, they will last longer…

[…] I am with Lord Kelvin’s grouse about qualitative information for things like battery life, I suspect in business and in education we have too much measurement of the things that are easy to […]

[…] the bridge will stay up. It is knowable whether cheap Poundland batteries are actually cheap or they just look cheap. There are places where you have to run with the balance of probabilities. there are other places […]

I love how the sage-like fonts of all wisdom who comment on internet articles always seem to be the ones in know. Where do they actually do their shopping I wonder?

Can’t speak for the other sage-like founts of all wisdom but I’d hope personal finance folk don’t frequent Poundland unless they find specific decent value there ;)

Most of the battle is buying less stuff – what you want is never a thing

I loved reading this! One question, though: why buy your electricity from EDF? Good Energy is cheaper, clean and ethical, and a pleasure to do business with.

Incidentally, the best rechargeable batteries I’ve found are Sanyo XX which are NiMH AA cells. They have a good combination of high capacity, low self-discharge, and wide operating temperature range; and they’re not made in China. Sanyo also makes a variant of this cell, which it calls Eneloop, which is somewhat lower in capacity, but has an ultra-low self-discharge rate, and so may be better suited for very low current devices, but I haven’t experienced this particular type myself. I can recommend the following as a supplier of Sanyo cells (they are very good on both price and customer service): http://www.componentshop.co.uk/

3 May 2014, 9:39am
by ermine


@Joss – indolence, largely. My electricity usage is much lower than average and I have outsourced the trouble of thinking about pricing to MSE’d energy club with the proviso I can’t be bothered to move for < £70 because I’ve been had by the move and then it all changes game a few times.

I’ll investigate the Eneloops. I’ve nromally used Maplin simply because they had a presence on the high sdtree and with a smart charger my rechargeables last for years. But Maplin’s rechargeables are all little oversize, and too tight for every single photo flashgun I own – a flashgun is somewhere where rechargeables really excel!

 

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