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In Focus

Wilko isn’t just a shop – it’s a magical portal to essential British tat

If you wanted cheap and cheerful household musts or sneezed-upon pick ‘n’ mix, you headed to Wilko – which makes the shop’s potential demise so much sadder. Marie-Claire Chappet speaks to fans and experts about its thrifty wonder

Thursday 10 August 2023 11:08 BST
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‘My husband will ask me what I need, and I reply: “Wilko will tell me”’
‘My husband will ask me what I need, and I reply: “Wilko will tell me”’ (Getty Images/iStock)

For Katie, a chief operations officer from Edinburgh, church is Wilko. “Cleaning is what I do to relax, and so Wilko is where I go to relax,” she explains. “If I’m stressed, I go to Wilko. My husband will ask me what I need, and I reply: ‘Wilko will tell me.’”

When it was announced last week that Wilko, the discount homeware and hardware shop found on most major high streets, planned to enter administration, my phone buzzed with messages from distraught friends like Katie. The potential demise of the brand, which places its more than 400 UK shops and more than 12,000 staff at risk, was met with similar devastation online. “Not Wilko?!” seemed to be a universal cry.

For the uninitiated, this is what Wilko does to people. Ostensibly, Wilko is a chain of “general stores” that sell practically everything from mops and shower gel to dog food and paint. It was founded in Leicester in 1930 by the Wilkinson family, who still retain ownership, and by the time the original founder died in 1997, Wilko had 150 stores across the country. Its first claim to fame was its Beaconsfield shop, which is just visible in the background of a scene in the classic 1945 film Brief Encounter; entirely fitting for a retail outlet that seems to encapsulate the national character. Indeed, the British public’s affection for Wilko feels rooted in its down-to-earth usefulness, its reasonable prices and lack of flashiness, all while simultaneously feeling a little bit brilliantly silly.

Nina, who works in hospitality, moved to London from her native Germany over 10 years ago and fell in love with Wilko when she was first shopping for supplies for her new home. She was taken aback by the fact she could get everything she needed all in one place – and so cheaply! “It is still my number one go-to for everything,” she says. “The moment I first went there, I loved it instantly because it’s somehow like a chemist’s but also a mini Ikea. They’ve got all the useful things for the home, plus nice decor stuff, all for great prices. From ironing boards to glassware, I have bought everything there – even plants and plant food.” She also credits Wilko with being the “only store in the UK that sells my favourite mascara from a German brand called Essence”.

Until last week’s announcement, I’m not sure I had ever given the shop a second thought, nor had I grappled with the reality of the nation’s fondness for it. For a discounted store, it was remarkably popular with customers of all economic backgrounds, finding an odd foothold with what Will, a casting agent from London, brilliantly dubs “the Greggs-eating-toffs”.

“The poshest Wilko queue I’ve ever been in was the one on High Street Kensington in the first lockdown,” he says. “They were all confused and trying to buy cleaning supplies. It’s catnip for certain real posh people who love saving money. It is so comforting: reassuringly off-brand, cheap and with no airs and graces.”

Some shops like Wilko carve out a corner of a nation’s heart – like M&S or John Lewis. Wilko’s potential absence from our high street reminds me of Woolworths, another beloved “general store” whose disappearance in 2009 caused similar outrage and despair. But why do we get so connected to these spaces?

For our communal kitchen at university, we got something like 100 baubles for £3 – and they stayed up until March. It was the beginning of a love affair

Will

“People often form emotional connections with places that hold personal memories or experiences,” says psychologist Natasha Tiwari. “These shops might hold value due to their association with significant moments, relationships, or milestones in a person’s life, creating a sense of familiarity and comfort.”

It is true that almost everyone I ask about Wilko’s potential end has a unique Wilko story of their own. It’s as if it’s not so much a high street staple as a stalwart companion, something that’s provided supplies for major life moments. Lauren, a dancer from Devon, tells me she discovered Wilko when she moved into her first home and found it was in a dire state. “It was the nearest store I could drive to and so I panic-bought all my cleaning supplies,” she tells me. “I still use all my dusters from that day.” A fellow journalist friend, Tibbs, shares that Wilko was an essential component of her first days as a freelancer working from home. “I built my routine around it,” she tells me. “It was always an exciting excuse to leave the house, but you didn’t feel guilty because you’re going there to buy dishwasher tabs for a total steal.”

Ruth, a consultant, says her sharpest memory growing up involved the pick ‘n’ mix counter and some low-level criminality at her local Wilko. “We used to do this trick where you put a few sweets in, weigh it, get the sticker for how much you’re meant to pay, then top up the bag with extra sweets,” she says, guiltily laughing about her juvenile indiscretions. “I guess between poor kids and Amazon, Wilko never stood a chance.”

For Will, his Wilko journey began at university. “It was in first year and we were buying Christmas decorations for our communal kitchen,” he says. “We got something like 100 baubles for £3 – and they stayed up until March. It was the beginning of a love affair.” Now married and in his thirties, he has never looked back. “Our tree is still a collection of Wilko baubles and inherited tat,” he says, wistfully. “To me, there is no better place to buy tree filler.”

The sad reality, of course, is that Wilko is another victim of the contagiously convenient online world of retailers such as Amazon. Even Will, whose Christmas tree serves as an everlasting paean to Wilko, admits he rarely shops there now. “Honestly, it’s twice a year and it’s either [because] I need to buy something boring like a bin… or it’s emergency tree decorations. I’ll be sad to see the empty Wilko shops when it goes, but I actually long ago swapped regular Wilko shopping for Prime.”

A woman in a mobility scooter leaves the Wythenshawe branch of Wilco in Manchester in August (Getty Images)

What these cries of anguish show, though, is that there is still a fondness for the bricks and mortar experience, if not the necessary participation to actually keep such things afloat. Even if we aren’t patronising them enough, we want these shops to still exist as a reassuring form of continuity.

“There’s a yearning for simpler times and a desire for tangible, sensory experiences,” explains Tiwari. “The smell of books in a bookstore. The touch of fabric in a clothing store. The sound of the background chatter. These sensory cues contribute to a richer and more immersive shopping experience, which can evoke a sense of nostalgia for an era when shopping felt like more of an experience, and part of a routine, than the transactional activity that shopping for necessities online offers.”

Wilko is also another space in which people can see each other in real life. Online shopping, while convenient, only further entrenches feelings of isolation and anxiety – particularly for those like the elderly. In Holland, after a report showed that 50 per cent of older people in the country experienced loneliness, one supermarket chain introduced “chatty checkouts” so they could talk to staff. “Stores like Wilko are important for this,” says Tiwari. “Interacting with store staff who you may see on regular visits, and engaging in face-to-face interactions, contribute to a feeling of community and connection.”

But perhaps, more than anything, we’re simply mourning the passing of time itself. Change is happening and things that always seemed to be there – and seemed at one point to be indestructible – are suddenly vanishing. Which isn’t to say, though, that everyone will be lamenting. Others are a little too traumatised by Wilko to give its potential death the time of day.

“I saw a toddler open one of the pick ‘n’ mix boxes once and sneeze directly into it before putting it back,” a friend tells me. “I have never eaten pick ‘n’ mix or stepped into a Wilko since.”

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