Feel free to mispronounce Ikea ( it should be ee-kay-uh, from the Swedish) and Lidl (lee-dal, from the German). But there’s no arguing when it comes to CeX, the bright red secondhand technology shop you get in more or less every UK town centre, usually next to McDonald’s, Primark and/or Poundland. It may be short for Complete Entertainment eXchange, but it shouldn’t be pronounced C-E-X, as you might say to your mum when explaining where you got her cheap secondhand mobile phone from. Officially, CeX is pronounced as sex. The pleasure of it is in the sheer incongruous irony – these stores, with their miles of metal shelving and threadbare carpets are as far from the erotic as it’s possible to get. But somehow, they hold a special place in the hearts of all entertainment seekers on a budget.
I am a regular visitor. There are five CeXs within a three-mile radius of my house and they’re extremely handy. The thrill is in never knowing exactly what you’re going to find. For the purposes of this article, the Guardian gave me a generous budget of £10 to discover what bargains lay in store.
But first some history. CeX (no sniggering at the back) was started in 1992 by a group that weirdly included writer and broadcaster Charlie Brooker, when he was still a games journalist writing for PC Zone magazine. The first branch opened near Tottenham Court Road, but there’s now 390 UK stores and a further 230 worldwide. Yes, before you ask, there is a CeX store on the Canaries – just in case, on your next summer holiday, you find yourself needing a copy of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker for the Nintendo Switch.
And yet, there’s always been something a bit fishy about CeX. Some people cling on to the idea that the place is full of stolen laptops and mobiles. But, no: CeX checks all items against a stolen goods database, so don’t get any ideas.
As well as the shops, you can also buy online from a giant database of all 390 UK shops. Phones and laptops are priced according to their grade (A – mint to F – non-functioning). Consoles come boxed, unboxed or discounted. Everything comes as a standard price. You do however pay more for stuff in CeX than you would buying privately. For example, CeX sells a £480 RRP boxed 1TB PlayStation 5 Slim Console for £390 – you could get one on eBay or Gumtree for around £300. The trade-off is everything CeX sells comes with a 24-month free warranty.
They also do retro consoles. Online you can find a 1992 Super Nintendo for £65 and a 2009 500GB PS3 Slim for £85 and a 2013 500GB Xbox One for £105. Alongside brand new games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for £50 on the PS5 and Super Mario Bros: Wonders on the Switch for £45, you’ll see shelves crammed with games for outdated consoles such as the PS3 and DS, priced for as little as £1. (Be careful though with backward compatibility – you can’t play PS3 games on a PS4 or PS5, for example, so you’ll need the original consoles).There are also plenty of DVDs and Blu-rays, some less than £1, thanks to the bottom completely collapsing out of the physical media movie market with the advent of streaming, , but these will still play on your PS4 and PS5.
“The main thing that affects price is how many copies we have in stock,” explains my local helpful CeX man (who prefers to remain anonymous). “The more popular the game, the more we’ll have in stock and the cheaper they’ll be.” Almost all of the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare PS3 games are on sale for £1. “If they’re part of an evolving series” – like Pro Evolution Soccer – “they’ll be cheap too. People come in with bags of games to sell. We have to put a price on everything – from £50 to 50p.” Certain games also hold their value indefinitely thanks to a rabid fanbase of collectors. Pokémon, Final Fantasy and Resident Evil can all come in anywhere between £20 and £100, while super rare titles on old consoles can go for more. A mint copy of Vib Ribbon on the PSOne, where you move your character in time with the music from your actual CDs, will cost you £120, a mint copy of Snatcher, the Mega CD cyberpunk adventure by Hideo Kojima will cost you £625, while a vanishingly obscure PAL copy of the N64 title Snowboard Kids 2 could be a grand.
While we’re chatting, I take the chance to quiz Mr CeX on some store policies. For example, what are the limits on the 24-month warranty? “Obviously it doesn’t cover customer damage,” he replies. What happens if something has just been stolen and so not logged on any stolen databases? “We’d have no knowledge so we’d buy it.” What if it’s reported stolen afterwards? A slight pause. “That doesn’t really happen.”
What’s the weirdest thing someone has tried to sell? “A pair of shoes,” he says. “People think we’re a pawn shop and buy anything, like hair straighteners … which we actually do buy. There’s some here for £45 if you’re interested?” I would be, had I any hair and it didn’t take me massively over budget. I could do with an extra PS3 controller, but the cheapest – a Dual Shock 3 – is £25. “Christmas wiped us out of controllers, even though they’re expensive,” he says. But I can afford to buy the PS3 Eye Camera and microphone for £1 each. So I do.
Back home, I’m rather pleased with my haul. Let’s break it down:
1. The original Call 0f Duty Modern Warfare 3 (PS3) – a steal at £1.
2. EyePet (PS3) – just £1 to watch a virtual pet crawl around my own living room in augmented Eye Camera reality.
3. SingStar Take That (PS3) – £1 to belt out Never Forget and Back for Good with Howard, Gary, Jason and Mark.
4. Get Fit with Mel B (PS3)– another quid well spent, although shouldn’t it have been Sporty Spice?
5. PES 2009 (PS3) – just 50p and only 15 years out of date.
6. PS3 Eye Camera and microphone for £1 each
This left me with £3.50, so in order to meet my brief and spend the agreed amount, I bought Dumb & Dumber To on DVD for £1.50 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes on Blu-ray for a bargain 75p. This – with the £1.20 I spent on a sausage roll next door at Greggs – put me 5p under my £10 budget. Bargain.
These stores may sometimes be a little tatty around the edges, but with a full stomach and several hours’ worth of semi-retro entertainment, who am I to complain? In short: CeX sells and I’m buying.