Ability Plus has a number of stores across the South-East of England, including one at the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, has reopened in phases to ensure business could bounce back.
In conversation with managing director Graham Johnson, AMP discovers how staff have become more of a focus than ever in ensuring business works for them as much as it does for the customers heading into store.
Not only has the virus forced store operations to change, the firm has kept one eye on how a good and proper online offering can help drive business forward even further, and issue highlighted further by the rise of ecommerce due to lockdown guidelines.
AMP: From a business point of view, how have things been managed over the past few months?
GJ: When Boris announced that stores and stuff were to close, we’d pre-empted that to some extent and there were certain people in the company that were highly vulnerable if they were to get it. I sent them home and said once we get more information we can decide on what we’re going to do.
Then when that happened, when Boris announced that and the furlough scheme was announced, we closed shops to some extent and basically said we’ll work from behind closed doors because customers still needed our services and our support so know that’s what we did initially.
AMP: How did that work from a service and support point of view?
GJ: It was just really through the telephone systems and notices on the store doors. Obviously customers were heeding what the government was saying and staying indoors and safeguarding. We also do products that are in the home, like stairlifts for example, where customers may have an issue and in that respect we asked them to safeguard. We told them to go into a different room then we would do what we had to do while sanitising everything that we touch. We’d then fix the problem, exit and then we just do a contactless payment. There wasn’t a great deal of that but it was just that reassurance for customers needing that type of product to be operating.
You’ve also got the issues of where people were in hospital when they were coming home and they needed the products for them, for their parents or whoever so we were able to do that. I wouldn’t say there was massive amounts of work but it ticked us over at that time.
AMP: Have you seen any particular popularity in a certain product since lockdown?
GJ: I certainly heard that there was, obviously the commodes were apparently one of the main products. Care beds were there once again but while we do provide those, I think the people that were getting that type of business were more the online dealers etc. because it made it easier for them to see what the product was. Our business is purely around customer service and presentation face-to-face but we have developed more of an online presence now.
AMP: Despite the service and maintenance work, did you have to make use of the furlough scheme?
GJ: We furloughed all the staff besides from five. Out of the five, three of them were engineers that can deliver products to customers and fix it etc. and then obviously our finance person needed to be in to carry on with bills which had to be paid and things had to be reconciled still and then myself. Obviously what we try to do is to safeguard our customers but also safeguard the staff. We didn’t want to put them in any position of risk at that time. That is as well as going forward obviously where there’s lots of measures put in place for safeguarding customers and staff in that respect.
We didn’t have a massive amount, it was more emergency stuff that we would be dealing with. If it was something that could wait, then we would ask them to wait. We still had customers phoning up asking for service on the scooters which was nice but we said we’re going to leave it to a little bit later as long as everything’s running okay.
AMP: Has the reopening been a phased approach?
GJ: It was absolutely a phased approach because we used the furlough as much as we could in regards to making sure that when we do open, there was going to be demand. We didn’t know what sort of demand other than the phone calls etc. we were getting, what the demand was going to be like.
As you’re aware, we’ve got a store in Bluewater but the first store that we reopened was Gillingham, which was followed by Herne Bay. So those two stores opened first because we were able to ascertain how best to approach things with customers when they were coming through the door. This was before certain guidelines were put down. We then started to position ourselves in a comfortable way, where the staff felt comfortable and the customers felt comfortable.
I always said to all of the staff, if they don’t feel comfortable in any way, just let me know and if we have re-close then we we’ll close. We still have to manage this situation, it’s not gone away and the last thing that we want is for anybody to be at risk from not complying with the lines which have been set down.
AMP: Has that way of approaching things with staff been replicated with good feedback?
GJ: Yeah. I think, as I say, the guys that weren’t furloughed and worked through that have worked extremely hard because as you can appreciate you’re doing the work of 20 people. Then the guys that have been off and furloughed, we kept in contact with them. We updated them on a bi-weekly basis of what was happening and they would be prepared when they come back to bounce back. That’s exactly what they’ve done, the ones that have come back have come back with a fresh attitude towards the work and it’s refreshing in that respect.
The ones that have worked all through this really deserve some time off and a pat on the back for everything that they’ve done to keep the business afloat.
AMP: You have mentioned the Bluewater store. From a retail point of view, how has the shopping centre store differed with those on the high street?
GJ: Well, Bluewater are extremely professional, they are very professional in everything they do. Obviously they’ve got the high-end brands located in that facility like John Lewis and Marks and Spencer etc. and they did a lot of research.
Because they’re an international company that runs Bluewater, they were able to see best practices from around the world and that’s where they introduced what they did with the one-way system. They’ve got guest staff so they look after the guests that are coming to the store and direct them in the right direction so they’ve got a one-way system and hand sanitiser everywhere. That’s when you come in, at every touch point and so on. What they’ve done has benefited us because we sat down over Zoom with them before the re-opening and they were telling us what was happening and advised us on some of the best practices to follow.
The thing is, as you can appreciate, the Bluewater has a busy footfall. Obviously when it reopened you were generally getting just the local people coming to there because the restaurants and the day experience wasn’t there.
That’s because people will travel to go there and spend a day there with some shopping and some food but that wasn’t available. We do the shopmobility for the centre and I’m pretty sure in saying it’s the biggest shopmobility in the country and if not in Europe. I haven’t seen one in my travels that is any bigger. We have a fleet of over 20 mobility scooters to hire and wheelchairs and powerchairs.
With regards to that, that’s all sanitised before the customer uses it and when it’s returned. What we did do is reduce that fleet down temporarily because we knew the demand was going to be down so it just helped us manage the situation.
AMP: From the lessons learned over the last few months, what has changed for the Ability Plus operation?
GJ: I’ll start from the beginning in regards to work before all of this. We were very heavily stocked with product and we had more product than we could actually fit into the stores. This meant what we were able to do when things started lifting, we managed to sell a lot of that product and that gave us an opportunity to clear space.
This is useful because as part of one of the things that you need now, is to have space where customers and ourselves can be a safe distance from each other. In the mobility business, our stores are never as busy because the number of customers that you get on a daily basis is not a lot compared to other retail markets.
This does mean that when customers are coming in to buy we can safely look after them and not have to worry about too many customers also coming in. In answer to your question this is creating the space for us to be able to safe distance.
AMP: What about strategic changes?
GJ: As everybody would tell you in the industry, online can be a right pain for us in regards to there’s not much margin in that type of activity because you’re just competing on price. You can’t differentiate because of the service that you’re offering, you’re competing on price and you’ll see from the likes of Better Life and other online traders that have done that, it’s a quick way to the bottom.
They’ve benefited over this period of time because of the situation which means we have to look at strategically, what is our best positioning in the new norm? Looking at our online presence, if you don’t update; somebody’s only going to read it once and they won’t revisit it. Our website was a brochure to our services but we never really kept on top of what we should be doing. We’ve not gone to e-commerce as yet, we may do so to some extent on the smaller products that we understand that customers would want to buy and are happy to buy so we may go down that road.
Having said that, what we’ve managed to do over this period of time is take a really good look at our website, what the traffic is and develop that. We’re seeing benefits from that already because we’re getting a lot of responses from customers via the website now which is good.
AMP: Tell me more about how the relationship from a supplier side of things has worked.
GJ: I cannot praise our suppliers enough for the support that they’ve given us through this period of time. When things were closing down and we had a lot of supplier’s invoices that were due to pay, like every business you’ve got to protect cash flow. I emailed and spoke to the majority of them and they said look, we’re all in the same boat just take care, look after yourselves, and when we get through the other side we’ll sort it out there.
It’s a two-way street, they support us and we sell their products and by doing that we support them and they have been fantastic in that respect. We had a lot of bills owing which we’ve cleared since then but if they weren’t to take that view, and not one of them didn’t take that view, they all said let’s get through this and then we’ll sort it out at the other end so fair play to them.
AMP: What plans did you have that you had to put on hold and how will they progress now?
GJ: Interesting question. I think we’re still coming to terms with the new norm and how we look after our clientele. I think one of the things you have to take into consideration is that your staff are still at the coal face, dealing with customers and seeing people that they wouldn’t normally bubble with.
It’s important that they are safeguarded through this and once again Bluewater is open seven days a week so we have to make sure that the shifting there is right. We’re trying not to cross over the shifting so the people that work together stay together in that respect.
I think the priority in the business is the staff. One of the things that we’ve certainly seen through this, I know it is a small company. It is very much a family-run business, my son works in it, my wife and then my daughter’s just doing some part-time stuff but everybody in the company is like family. There’s been new-borns in the business, relationships have developed through the business and everything so the priority going forward is the and how we look after them because they’re the ones that look after our customers.
We’ve managed to do the website and make that look good. We’ve reduced the offering in-store while still offering everything that the customers require.
We also want to look at more training in more of the special end stuff. We’ve got guys that have been in the industry longer than the company’s been going so their experience in special end stuff is fantastic but we’ve got new staff that we want to get up to that speed as well.
We’ve got a couple of young apprentices that we took on a couple of years ago and they’re now getting into stepping up to a more senior position in the company, so personal development once again is important and I think the people that have had the time off have had the time to have a think about what they’re doing in life in general and make sure that they’re happy with it and I think that’s one of the things that we’ve seen when they’ve come back. They are extremely focused in what they are doing and have all bounced back to it with enthusiasm.