“Wilko is a business built on strong values. We started out in the great depression and the Second World War, we’ve been there for our customers through highs and lows, recessions and coronations. Our loyal team members past and present have always been our biggest asset – our average length of service across our stores is 10 years and, in many places, generations of team members have been on hand with advice or even just a friendly smile”

Overview

In August 2023 publicity surrounding the imminent collapse of the much-loved heritage homeware brand ‘Wilko’s’ made headlines. With over 400 stores, more than 12,000 employees and a history of over 90 years through various economic recessions, the demise was a shock to many. But for seasoned industry observers, the markers of distress were apparent for several months prior. In their last reported financial year (2021 / 2022), Wilko’s operating loss exceeded £37 million. Pre-COVID, in the financial year of 2018 / 2019, Wilko was already experiencing operational losses. In three of the last five years where Wilko did achieve an operating profit, the margins were unsustainable, at rates of between 0.1% and 0.5% (FTSE 100). This would indicate that the management of Wilko was experiencing failures prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. To further muddy the waters, Wilko was a privately traded company, so public stock values were not reported nor visible, making analysis of the demise that much more difficult. So what then was the root cause behind this spectacular and tragic collapse?

Background

Assessing the key commentary perspectives (Wilko’s own explanation, the wider economic climate, financial reports, customer experiences and employee experiences), a common story begins to emerge. This is one of the operational costs, ineffective management, and the subsequent impacts of these on investment, customer experience and employee satisfaction. Wilko painted a positive picture to the world, but behind the scenes, there was a somewhat controlled, yet poorly executed, strategy to attempt to salvage the brand. A catalogue of errors by upper management resulted in a relatively swift collapse, despite its long and successful history.

Dividends

As a family-run business until its dying day, the tides of success began to change in 2015, when part of the family wanted out of the business. Karin Swann, granddaughter of founder James K. Wilkinson, quit the board leaving her cousin Lisa Wilkinson as chair. Karin’s shares in the business were sold to Lisa for £63 million. Over the course time from 2015, the owners have withdrawn over £77 million from the business. This even included years of operational and financial loss. Even in the face of a recent imminent collapse, a further £3 million dividend was withdrawn in the last financial year (Retail Gazette). But as a privately traded company, no public share value was ever reported. This begs the question, did Wilko need to go bust? Or was it shareholder greed that led to this downfall, impacting the lives of thousands of employees?

Customer Satisfaction

According to verified reviews on TrustPilot, Wilko enjoyed a relatively high level of customer satisfaction. 69% of reviews were 5 stars, and a further 30% at 4 stars. However, the overall rating of 3.9 out of 5 hid a growing minority of unsatisfactory customer experiences, totalling over 20%. Commonly reported issues focus on faulty products, issues with returns and refunds, and poor in-store and digital customer support.

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Employee Satisfaction

Employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction are very closely linked. Often in the case of mismanagement within a business, the cracks can show first in the employee experience. On Glassdoor, an employee experience review site, the employee experience at Wilko showed a low level of approval for the CEO, Mark Jackson. Further, it highlighted common complaints among employees as relating to poor management, lack of available overtime hours for shift workers, and in some stores, a culture of favouritism and bullying.

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eCommerce

In 2021, Wilko boasted more than 2 million website visitors per week. Online sales for Wilko were strongly linked to YouTube DIY videos, the PayPal payment method and mobile device purchases. Digital sales were predominantly UK-based, accounting for almost 98% of total global traffic (Similar Web). Wilko’s digital assets could have been optimised but were not in an unreasonably poor state to cause the significant drop in financial buoyancy that was being reported.

As a discount store, Wilko even expressed confidence over the last Christmas shopping period and reported exceeding their sales predictions over this golden season of retail. Economic commentators agreed that buyer behaviours would favour discount retailers like Wilko in times of such economic recession. But despite this original outlook and prediction, Wilko continued to lose ground. This is in stark contrast to the picture painted by CEO Mark Jackson:

“We’ve made significant savings across our cost base and have been considering various options based on advice regarding our store costs. Alongside this we’ve continued to move forward with strategically accelerating our omnichannel offer, improving the digital customer experience and opening up new marketplaces for our great-value Wilko products. We believe that Wilko has distinct characteristics with over 50% of sales in Wilko brand products (over 10,000), our value, local shopping locations and ever-expanding digital capabilities. Significant work has been completed to streamline costs and transform the way the business operates, and our robust turnaround plan, based on annualised cost savings, would have delivered the most profitable Wilko ever recorded within 24 months”.

Operating Costs

Over recent decades, Wilko invested heavily in warehousing, factories and high-street stores. Richard Lim (BBC) said Wilko’s focus on the High Street had not helped it keep up with its rival. He stated:

“It seems likely that poor, or outdated locations, were one reason for Wilko’s demise, so if some of the better ones were no longer available, a deal to rescue the remainder may have become more difficult.”

Not only were their investments in bricks and mortar property poorly located in some instances, but their sale of such assets was poorly executed. In November 2022, Wilkos flagship distribution centre was sold to DHL for £48 million. But only two months later, in January 2023, DHL onsold the same distribution centre for £88 million. It was widely agreed that Wilkos sale of the site was hugely undervalued, poorly managed and the result of a desperate attempt to generate cash flow. But these blunders by upper management – losing £20 million pounds in a single transaction – were the responsibility of the company to get right. The family and shareholder payouts are also of major concern and certainly added to the ultimate conclusion. Over the last ten years, £77 million has been paid out including a £3 million dividend last year against an operating loss of £39 million and a £3.2 million dividend was made in 2018 against a record loss of £65 million.

Over 12,000 employees relied on this management team to steer the business into success. Through these constant failures, the job losses in Wilko will add to similar retail job losses in recent years in the UK, seeing over 100,000 roles lost through big retailers’ failures.

The Result

Poor management, an overinvestment in bricks-and-mortar premises and excessive shareholder payouts appear to have strained Wilkos ability to thrive within a tough economic environment beyond repair. They have in their own way contributed to the economic recession by adding more than 12,000 job losses to the growing number we are seeing from the retail sector. Owing to the private nature of the business, accountability is limited. Creditors must register with liquidators PwC to ensure they are counted amongst those owed for payments still outstanding. This long list includes suppliers, vendors and even employees.

Discussion

The Wilko chain, which was founded in 1930 when JK Wilkinson opened his first store in Leicester, has faced a steady decline with sales falling back in each of its last four financial years. They dropped by a fifth to £1.2bn between 2019 and 2022, when the retailer dived £35.9m into debt, according to their accounts filed at Companies House. A series of loans in early 2023, followed by bankruptcy and then an asset sale to The Range for $6.23 million, conclude the sad tale. In the aftermath, customers, employees and even the wider retail economy have been left to pick up the pieces. What will this mean for competitors like Boots and Argos, and for Wilko buyer The Range? Will times get easier? Is it a predictor of worse to come? Lessons must be learned from the poor management of Wilko that ultimately led to its demise, and inspire remaining heritage retailers to modernise and even publicise their business practices more openly and transparently to avoid similar fates in future.

Does This Affect You?

PwC can be contacted by anyone affected, via the email address uk_wilko_creditors@pwc.com

Timeline

February 1930: Wilko opens its first store in Leicester, founded by James K. Wilkinson

December 1939: Six Wilko stores in operation

1940 – 1945: First car used for customer deliveries, and services during WWII

1978: First own-brand paint product is launched

1980’s: Transportation fleet expands for supplies and deliveries

1990’s: Warehousing opened for distribution expansion

2008: Wilko expands into Asia

2015: The buy-out of one family member costs £63 million

2018: Wilko Asia expands and rebrands to Wilko Worldwide

2019: The beginning of the YoY sales and financial decline of Wilko

2021: Wilko online has 2 million visits per week

November 2022: Flagship distribution centre sold to DHL for £48 million

January 2023: DHL sells distribution centre for £88 million

July 2023: Wilko in debt in excess of £35.9 million

August 2023: Wilko enters administration with PwC

September 2023: HMV owner Doug Putman’s offer to take on the bulk of the Wilko shops falls through. Rival store ‘The Range’ to buy Wilko intellectual property for $6.23 million (£5 million). B&M has inked a deal to buy 52 stores and Poundland is to purchase 71 stores. The ex-boss is also facing pressure to explain the family’s plan for the pension fund shortfall that has been exposed.