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EXCLUSIVE: Ableworld’s retail roadmap

Crewe Mike Front

Boris Johnson may have set out his roadmap for the country at the start of May, but Ableworld’s managing director Mike Williams also has a plan for the mobility retailer.

Speaking to AMP as part of its new ‘AMP Live’ online interview initiative, Williams gives insight into how Ableworld is coping through the pandemic and reveals plans on how to move into the new normal.

How are you and how is life in lockdown for the Ableworld team?

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It has been difficult and it has been very tiring but we are in strange times and we have got a great team here. About half of our staff are still going, business has naturally gone down but the team are helping people and they feel good about it.

Can you give us an update on Ableworld operations throughout this?

We’ve furloughed around 45% of the staff but we’ve been operating basically as normal, with PPE where needed, obviously. We’ve still been opening all of our shops, we’ve been going out and doing repairs, we’ve been going out and fixing stairlifts so as normal but at a much reduced turnover.

What has been your response to Boris’ roadmap to get Britain back to work?

Mixed really. We were quite pleased on one hand, a couple of small restrictions lifted but at the same time we have realised you can’t go too far because the last thing we want is having to go down to a serious lockdown again. I was very pleased that he has allowed people to go out and meet in pairs in the outside and hopefully that will bring a few more people in to buy some more of our products.

How has the furlough scheme been managed?

Well, the staff that are working are in great spirits. I’m sure there’s an odd occasion where they come to work and they think they’d prefer to be at home like some of the others but they’ve had a great team spirit.

They’ve enjoyed helping and getting out and because we’ve got less staff at the moment, you are working closer together so the team spirit has been fantastic. We are still keeping in touch with those on furlough and we’ve brought a couple back but in the main it depends on the business when we bring everybody back.

And what about social distancing?

At the moment there has been no problems with it. The social distancing is there because the office is basically half of what it was. We’re 25 people short in the office so there’s been no issue with any equipment or social distancing. The issue will become of course when we are trying to bring them back and I imagine that will be 5 or 6 weeks away depending on what happens. Depending on the rules and if there is still two metres social distancing then there could be issues on how we plan the offices but that will be more of a country wide issue rather than one just specific to us.

There could be something where it says two metres isn’t necessary and you only need one metre but that all depends on the rules and what they say.

The chancellor announced an extension to the furlough scheme, does that give you confidence moving forward?

Yes, I think so. I don’t think anyone likes making redundancies and we certainly don’t and we don’t do it but the reality is, depending on how business is and what the chancellor expects employers to pay, we look at it every day an every week on what changes there are.

However, looking at it as it is we do feel confident yes. I suppose on your mind this is trade and this is how it will be for the next six months but I think the reality is that it will go on into next year.

On an individual level, how are you stores operating in staying open?

There’s only one store which is particularly small so that will possible be one in and one out but that won’t be a major problem because it is under cover. You look at food supermarkets and if it’s raining, that’s the time you know we won’t be queuing outside.

We are lucky with our stores because they are large enough for our staff and for our customers to come in safely. Yes, we will have to put rules into it but we are not going to have the issues were there will be long queues outside although I wish we would sometimes to have that many customers all at once but the reality of our trade is that we won’t have a big issue there.

As I say, the staff that are working there at the moment are the ones that have mainly volunteered to stay and they are enjoying helping. At the same time, they are managing and will all have different levels of worry as we all do.

How have you managed to keep in contact with customers across the business?

Again, we’ve done to carry on as normal as we can really. We are open, head office is open, our stores are all open. It depends on the customers. There have been a couple of customers say no, I don’t want you in my home at the moment which is fair enough, we can sort it out later. Others have been over the moon that we are still open. We’ve done next day installations on some stairlifts, for children who can’t visit their parents for example. They’ve called to ask if we can sort the stairlift out for them.

I suppose the biggest problem has been the customers that won’t social distance. We get some engineers or the guys going to do stairlifts and the customers are still coming up and are very close so it is more our staff who are having to ask the customers to stand back a little bit.

So some consultations have still gone ahead with the use of PPE and keeping their distance but it depend on the serious of the need for the equipment. We can’t ignore the people who are out there in need just because of the virus, people are still suffering and I think that is the most important thing. It would have been easier from a business point of view to just furlough everybody and close our doors but that is not what we are about.

People have been very grateful too that we are still there, whether it be for incontinence pads or anything else. Let’s not kid ourselves, for 20 years Ableworld has been proud that we’ve increased our turnover, normally by double figures, increased our profits virtually every year, but it’s no big deal that this year we will not be increasing our profits and we will not be increasing our turnover, that’s the reality. We would have also lost a little bit more money by staying open than if we had have closed down but it is so important that we are there to help, especially with the trade and business that we are in.

It must be a good feeling for you and the team knowing you are offering support to those that need it.

I think the people, the few we’ve pulled back from furlough have been over the moon to come back because you can only see those four walls. It would have driven me insane to be at home. I enjoy coming to the office, yes there’s less staff, yes there’s more difficult times, but you’ve still got a job to do and it’s the same with the customers.

Some can’t get out of their home that still need to see people occasionally but what the Government has just done is good because the people that can get out, can get a bit of fresh air and from a social distance, see a friend or a neighbour.

How have supply chains worked throughout this time?

In the main it hasn’t been a problem the problem, the problem has been unfortunately the British suppliers of beds and riser recliners, we’ve been trying to buy a more British stuff in the last couple of years but, as soon as the Government closed the furniture stores down, of course all the bed manufacturers and most of the riser recliner manufacturers closed down.

That’s been a bit more of a problem or a bit of an issue. We’ve got our bed supplier going in with some staff this week and they’re going to manufacture quite a few beds for us so luckily they’ve come in to sort out some stock for us. But other stocks haven’t really been a problem. I think they will be a problem long term but I think when we come out to this we will be alright for a while because we built up stocks quite a bit before all of this happened so we’ll have the stocks for that.

I also think the suppliers in the main, talking to them, will also have the stocks short term. Now it will be interesting to see what the different suppliers do, I know some of the warehouses are bulging. Will they start a price war or will, in the situation, some maybe try and put up their prices? So it’ll be interesting to see how manufacturers react after all this and how much they’ve got on the water coming over but I think most warehouses are pretty full with manufacturers that we use.

You’ve mentioned profits, how from a business point of view has this left Ableworld moving forward?

I think we’ll come back mentally stronger. We’ve enjoyed helping and playing our small part out there. The so-called roadmap we set out here, we’ve done a bit of a deviation of two or three months but we’ll still open two or three stores this year. There’s lots of people still wanting franchises, so we will still aim to open three or four new franchises next year naturally depending on the situation. But yes, as a company the profits won’t be there this year but at the same time, mentally I think we will actually come out stronger.

I think we’ve done ourselves an awful lot of good with the professionals, the OTs, care homes and everyone else. We’ve been there, we’ve been helping to deliver, and we’ve been sorting out issues and problems to get people out of hospitals so I think we will come out as a much stronger brand because of it.

Do you think the developed adaptability will help with that moving forward?

I think very much so. They’ve enjoyed it, they’ve enjoyed helping, and they’ve seen the hardship the people have gone through. We’ve had closer ties with the health authorities to get walking frames or all the equipment to those. We’ve been delivering ourselves, the managers have been going out to their cars. It’s been a fantastic team effort all round from our company.

With the roadmap that Boris has set out, what plan does Ableworld have to get those furloughed staff back to work, government guidelines allowing?

I think that will work as and when we need them back. As you say we’ve got to October now. The first stage will be the stores, we’ve got one coming back in and into head office next week but apart from that the first stage will be stores and that will be totally dependent on business. For business increases or whether the other business increases we will slowly bring people back into the stores which I don’t see as a huge issue because we’ve got the space, we’ll make sure we got the equipment and we’ll work by whatever rules.

For head office, I can see more July. Let’s hope and presume business increases in June and July. If that happens, most of head office won’t come back to July August or even later because as I said, we’re well stocked up so the business will come, then we’ll start ordering and then unfortunately the invoices will start coming in, then we will need a lot more people at head office.

Is that what you’re hoping for from a personal perspective, are you hoping for a June/July return?

I’m certainly hoping that in the next two to three weeks, business improves – I’d be kidding myself that I thought would be going up to budget in the near future, I don’t think we will. Whether we will at all this year is another matter but the cost base is a lot less because of furlough so yes we can certainly manage and we will go through the year and hopefully the business will come back very quickly but I think it will be a gentle climb rather than next week everybody coming.

Speaking of budgets, are you expecting 2021 to take a hit as well? Have plans realigned?

We’ll have to look at whatever budgets and profits it is. It’s a situation across the country whatever it is. I certainly hope we’ll be budgeting for very big increases on this year’s sales because we’ve been here and sales are somewhat 50% down on what they were last year so we certainly don’t want that to carry on into 2021 and beyond for any reason.

Thanks for joining us Mike and good luck with the rest of the year.

Thank you for your time today, it was great to talk to you. There are so many people who have helped our customers at this very difficult time and we are really pleased Ableworld have been able to play a small part in supporting our NHS and our Key workers. Those on the front line are doing amazing things every day and we really cannot thank them enough.

I would like to add a special thank you to Dane Lawrence from Scooterpac for bringing in so much PPE and supporting Care Homes and the NHS. We purchased some to donate locally and they were very gratefully received. It is great to see the industry coming together and working for the greater good for our customers the public.

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Alex Douglas

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