Mourning the demise of Wilko

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Like many other people, I was saddened to hear the recent news that Wilko had notified an intention to go into administration.

I first properly discovered Wilko when I moved to the Acocks Green area of Birmingham in 2008, I was lucky enough to have a large store practically on my doorstep, less than five minutes walk away.

Not having much disposable income at the time, and having to end up living on a very shoestring budget very shortly afterwards, Wilko was a godsend. All the household and garden stuff I could ever need, at fantastically low prices.

The store at Acocks Green, on the Warwick Road right in the heart of the ‘village’, was a big one, and was always very well stocked. I used to enjoy just going in there once a week to pick up household essentials, as well as getting other ‘luxuries’ as and when I needed them.

Even when I moved ‘up the road’ to South Yardley in 2016, Wilko at Acocks Green was still a short bus-ride or a leisurely walk away. I always remember it being very busy at times, especially at the weekends, but the checkouts were always well staffed to keep queues down.

After moving over to Billesley in 2018, my nearest store became the one in Kings Heath, on High Street. Being a more ‘traditional’ high street branch, it was quite small, not as big as the one at Acocks Green, but still carried a good deal of stock, though not quite the same depth of range. I always found the staff helpful and friendly.

While the Acocks Green branch was still available via a 15min ride on the 11 Outer Circle bus, in recent months I’ve found myself travelling in the other direction to the new(ish) store at Selly Oak Retail Park. While I find this new retail park soulless and insipid, the Wilko Selly Oak store is big and spacious, though the supply issues become more obvious here with the amount of empty shelving on display.

I’ve also recently travelled as far as Northfield, now that’s hardcore Wilko shopping! Again its a nice big store, located at the end of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, but there’s still something soulless about the place.

Due to the pandemic lockdowns, I didn’t shop much at Wilko for obvious reasons. Iceland do a small range of household essentials, which I was able to get delivered with my shopping, and of course I have an abundance of local independent supermarkets and shops here, so I didn’t have to do without toiletries and cleaning supplies!

What irked me about Wilko when I first started going back there, was that like many other shops, they had retained their hastily-assembled ‘self-checkout’ systems. Now I’m no Luddite, and I am perfectly capable of using these self-scan systems, I would just prefer not to!

Like my last visit to Matalan, these self-checkouts are basically the existing staff-manned checkouts, but ‘turned the other way’. Personally I find this means they are awkward to use, as unlike ‘properly-designed’ self-checkouts at Tesco or Asda, you’re not left much room to work with. They’re fine if you only have one or two items, but will be time-consuming if you have a small trolley-full.

One thing I observed in my visits to Wilko in Acocks Green, Kings Heath, Northfield and Selly Oak in the last few months, was how ‘quiet’ these stores were. They certainly weren’t “dead”, there were still a fair few shoppers browsing in there, but certainly not as busy as I remember the Acocks Green store being. Also, I didn’t notice as many ‘elderly’ shoppers either.

While some people are fine with using ‘self-checkout’ systems, there’s something ‘dehumanising’ I find about the whole thing. I used to enjoy emptying my basket for a checkout operator to scan the items, maybe exchange a few pleasantries while bagging my items, and there’s always a nice satisfaction from being able to say ‘thank you’ and “see you again” to a fellow human being after making payment.

I’ve worked in retail myself before, and I’ve seen how you can make someone’s day by being pleasant and conversant with them. You don’t get this kind of satisfaction from a self-checkout system. I’d go so far as to say it would put some people off, maybe that’s why Wilko have been struggling in the last couple of years.

In comparison, a couple of months ago, I went to B&M in Shirley at the Parkgate centre. The store was very busy as I remember, and they had fully staffed checkouts. It was a very pleasant shopping experience, I will go back there again.

It would be a sad loss if Wilko were to collapse into administration and close for good, and I hope a buyer can be found that will keep them going. Their own-brand products are good value for money and of very good quality; I still swear to this day that their glass cleaner was the best I’ve ever used!

But in the effort to reduce operating costs, you musn’t overlook your frontline ‘customer-facing’ staff – self-checkout systems won’t save you money if they put off customers less-comfortable with using scanners and touchscreens, as well as the possibility of fraud or theft, if less honest customers decide not to scan one or two items.

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