Alex Wilkinson, one of Wilkinson Cameras’ Directors reflects on 2020 – the most unusual year in our three and a half decades of business, and for Alex and many others – probably of her life so far.
The word “unprecedented” has been somewhat over-used this year… but if someone would have told me what we would face this year, I definitely wouldn’t have believed them.
In January, we lost one of our Burnley colleagues, Andrew Warn. Andy had been with the company for almost 15 years. In our entire 35-years history, Wilkinson Cameras has never had a serving staff member pass away.
In early March, Covid had become a serious concern and plans were put in place to change the way our stores operated. Closing was not an option. We try to minimise stores being closed at all costs. But, by the end of March all our stores were closed. All. Our. Stores. Were. Closed. We operate online daily anyway and have a strong online presence, but we are high street retailers and our 10 stores were closed!
Action stations! Stock was gathered up from stores and sent to our main warehouse for sale online. Marketing plans were changed rapidly. “We are still open online!” we shouted. We prepared as best we could, without really knowing what we were preparing for.
I moved all my equipment home, where fortunately I already had an office space. My colleague, Andrew, has been at home for 8 of the 9 months he has worked with us. Hannah has been working on her dining room table alongside her mum all year.
We set up a group to keep in contact with our furloughed staff, very conscious of the fact that some staff members may find it difficult to be alone for so long and to make sure we kept in contact. Much like we tried to find exciting and inspirational posts for our customers, we wanted to make sure staff weren’t forgotten about either.
I think initially we all thought we’d be back in a couple of months, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t the case. We had to adapt quickly to provide a more comprehensive service online – including making our Customer Service team go from 5 to 7 days a week, offering repairs, part-exchange and more online.
With the stores closed, ten teams of knowledgeable staff members were no longer available to advise customers and pick up any of the slack. Therefore Liz, from our Liverpool team, was brought in as a remote Customer Service team member and shortly after we brought Liverpool Assistant Manager, Joe on board too. I’d even help out when it got very busy.
We found that we gained a lot of new customers during this period and throughout the rest of the year. People who found us online and were impressed with our excellent level of service – from the speed we respond to queries (usually the same day… often the same hour!) and the speed of delivery.
I’m extremely proud of the team behind all this – from marketing and website management, buying, stock control, administration and accounting, sales and customer service – they have worked tirelessly to ensure that customers could receive their items despite stores being closed and to ensure that the business continued despite the tough conditions.
At the end of May, we sadly lost another colleague. Sara Penwarden had been with Wilkinson Cameras for 22 years, the latter part of her career spent at our main office managing our Online Sales team. I personally learned a lot from Sara and I think about her often. Working from home has been a real blessing here because it means I can’t miss her when I go downstairs to make a coffee or be sad when I realise she won’t be around to chat to in the office in the morning. I’m sure my colleagues at the office miss her presence daily.
When the stores re-opened, we had to make the tough decision to only reopen eight and permanently close two. This wasn’t a decision taken lightly – no decision which involves staff members’ incomes or futures is done without full consideration – but this of course was done with the whole business in mind. Even so, we received abusive emails lambasting us for our decision to close a local store.
Our in-store teams went back to work, wearing face masks and visors, fearful for their own health and working in difficult circumstances. Many of us are aware of the inconvenience of wearing a mask for an hour or so to go shopping. But imagine wearing one for eight hours a day! Again, I am extremely grateful for the hard work everyone in the company has put in over this difficult period.
Around August, things were looking up. I live in Greater Manchester and our restrictions were about to be loosened. I was excited… things were about to go back to “normal”. I could see some friends perhaps? The day this was supposed to happen, the restrictions imposed on my town in fact tightened up dramatically. This thing was not going away after all.
After a couple more months in “the new normal”, rumours of another lockdown began to circulate. By November the stores were closed again. Of course, we were ready this time. We’d done this before. The online team once again worked tirelessly and worked long days and extra days to cope with the increased online demand.
In the background, we prepared for Christmas – an unknown entity with Covid-19 so heavily affecting the high street. The one thing we’re beginning to feel confident about though – Christmas wasn’t going to be cancelled and it was almost universally accepted that another lockdown wouldn’t be on the cards as news of two successful vaccines hit and it appeared infections were being controlled.
Christmas is on! A shining light at the end of the tunnel. We’re all set in-store. We’ve even given the store staff Boxing Day off in light of the news about being able to spend time with family!
Unfortunately, once again, everything changed and now on December 22nd we find ourselves planning for Lockdown 3 or Tier 4. Who knows if they will happen, but at least we’ll be prepared if they do!
We can’t be certain of a lot at the moment. But what I am certain about is how incredibly grateful I am, as are my fellow Directors, to all our staff for their hard work this year. I’m also very grateful to all our customers, old and new, who have supported us. I hope you will continue to do so for a long time to come. Thank you also to the suppliers and brands we work with too.
We are an independently-owned business with a relatively small team, so every customer, regardless of the value spent, is important to us. Our reviews this year have been remarkable (you can see here for yourself) and really show how much our customers are valued, by the way they are treated.
The way we operate as a business (in one word… sensibly!) has ensured that we have been able to weather the storm of 2020 and enter 2021 strong. We hope that our staff, customers, followers and suppliers have been able to do the same and that you will be able to put a difficult year behind you and look ahead to a more positive year.
Thank you, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all at Wilkinson Cameras,