When James got back from travelling in 2008, he saw a job ad for Wilko. He applied and got it. Fifteen years of loyalty later – after he had worked on “practically everything you could possibly do” at the budget retailer – James* is likely to be made redundant within weeks.
A rescue deal involving HMV to save the embattled Wilko chain fell through on Monday, meaning all 400 stores and 12,500 jobs are likely to go by early October, according to the GMB union. Two distribution centres will close on Friday. Poundland plans to buy up to 71 Wilko sites, but only after all the stores have shut and staff been made redundant.
“Morale is at rock bottom. We have no clarity,” said James, a 57-year-old retail adviser in Essex, one of a number of workers who responded to a Guardian callout about affected staff. “We’re as much in the dark as anyone else.”
James said the company was a pleasure to work at for most of his time there. “There’s a camaraderie I haven’t experienced anywhere else,” he said. On his favourite station, the shop floor, James would get on first-name terms with regulars and feel a “real sense of worth” when customers thanked him for going above and beyond.
But in about January, James began to see empty shelves. Something did not feel right. “People coming in [started] asking: ‘Are you closing?’ We just didn’t know.”
For James, the collapsed retailer did not want to follow the route of cut-price retailers such as Poundland, which contributed to Wilko’s “gradual decline”.
James now trawls work websites such as Indeed every day. He says the period has been incredibly stressful. “I’m in my late-50s. Am I going to get another job?”
When 22-year-old Ben Mackenzie joined Wilko in 2019 after leaving school, it was his first job. By the time he left in June this year – after leaving university to become a civil servant – he was one of the most senior members of staff. He sometimes gave the newer recruits tips.
Earlier this year, Mackenzie started to notice things were not right at Wilko. “There was quite a lot of gaps on the shelves,” he said of the St Albans branch.
Mackenzie said management did not keep staff informed about the problems behind the scenes. To explain the gaps on shelves, “We were told about ‘supplier issues,’ he said. So it was “quite shocking” when “the whole thing came tumbling down.”
Wilko was a great place to work, Mackenzie said. He often opened the store on Saturdays and enjoyed chatting to the regulars. “I’d have three or four people come in as soon as it opened, so I got to know them quite a bit.” Sometimes, he’d use the 20% staff discount, treating himself to pick-n-mix.
“A lot of people that worked there did rely on this job,” he said. Mackenzie worries particularly about the toll on older workers. “Because it will be hard for them to find new work,” he said. “Obviously, if they’re still working into their 70s they probably need the money more than anyone else.”
Helen, 72, from Folkstone, has been working for Wilko for more than eight years, and is devastated by the closure of all its shops.
“I feel anger; it never needed to have happened. I worked first in the Colchester branch and moved to Folkestone in 2016. Whilst at Folkestone I was seconded to Canterbury to assist with freshers’ week there for two years running. I started off as a cashier, but then managed to get on the shop floor, which I really liked. I have loved every minute of my time working for Wilkos, but things went downhill in the last few years. I think a lot of us sensed things weren’t quite right.”
“There was also low morale, they reduced staff and we had to do more and more and more. Recent weeks have been one of the worst experiences of my life. All this talk about turning every stone to stop this happening, and Lisa Wilkinson saying it wouldn’t have made any difference if she had not taken the millions of dividends – that Wilko would still have gone under.”
Helen feels upset about the loss of Wilko on Britain’s high streets.
“Wilko’s was special, sort of like a poor man’s John Lewis, the stuff was generally of a good quality, and I think it absolutely belonged on the high street, in the centre of town, and not in car parks, as critics have said,” she said.
“My heart bleeds for the many wonderful customers and their crestfallen faces at my till these past few weeks.”
*Some names have been changed.