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Interviews

Throwing “The Works” at Crime

Keeping Colleagues and Profits Safe at Christmas

There are fewer more all-encompassing phrases than giving something “the works”. In the culinary world, it would mean a plate of plenty—a pizza with all the toppings or, at this time of year, a turkey with all the trimmings, but in simple terms its definition means literally “providing everything”.

And, as the name suggests, that is exactly what national high street retailer The Works does best in its smaller footprint stores across the UK and Ireland where the festive season sees four-thousand colleagues playing Santa’s little helpers to millions of crafters, puzzlers, readers, and hobbyists—many of whom will be accessing the brand’s tens of millions of product lines to create their own gifts and goodies, particularly as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bear down on hard-pressed customers at this time of year.

Its potent price point provides the significant pull across its five-hundred-and-twenty-six physical stores and its strong multi-channel proposition—TheWorks.co.uk—which underpins its mission to offer a unique and enjoyable shopping experience built on the core principles of value, variety, and quality. 

The stores provide a smorgasbord of stock choice across its four main categories—books, arts, crafts and hobbies, stationery, and seasonal offerings—covering a variety of indoor and outdoor activity and including everything from birthdays to Easter and the all-important Christmas period. 

All these products include The Works’ popular own brands such as “Make & Create”, “Boldmere”, and “Crawford and Black”, or the deliciously entitled “Scribblicious”. 

The Works’ seasonal brand offerings include “Hip Hip Yay”, and at this time of year, “Winter Works”, and they all have one thing in common—to provide something for everyone across its wide age demographic of customers. 

To provide some context, only 20 per cent of The Works’ stock file—from black pens to A5 note stationery—is what is called “static product”, which means it is an evergreen, “always there” item. The other 80 per cent arrives at different times of the year to meet and greet the seasons, from arts and crafts and puzzles to best-selling page-turners—something that keeps the business on its toes with regards to profit and product protection. 

To subvert a well-known idiom, The Works operates on a basis of “more is actually more” when it comes to choice and having everything either under one roof or available at the click of a mouse. 

As the UK’s leading family friendly retailer of value gifts, arts, crafts, toys, books and stationery, The Works’ four zones of products are designed to show customers what they can “do” as well as empowering them to do it, from crocheting—The Works is the UK’s last retailer on the high street to sell wool—to creative craft and play.

Its mission is to inspire customers to read, create and play—and make their lives more fulfilled. But The Works has even bigger ambitions as encapsulated in the launch of its “better, not just bigger” strategy. 


History

But this multi-faceted value proposition has more humble beginnings, a story that saw the business fittingly begin life as a book seller. 

The company was founded in 1981 by former British Leyland workers Mike and Jane Crossley who operated the discount bookstore Remainders Limited out of their living room.

By 1984, the Crossley’s had opened their first shop in Halesowen in the West Midlands, though this no longer features as a branch in the company’s chain of stores. 

Over the next sixteen years they expanded Remainders Ltd to open over one-hundred-and-sixty shops in the UK and Ireland. They operated from a purpose-built base on an industrial park at Minworth which was opened in 1999 and achieved a turnover of £60 million and employed 1,200 people. 

In 2001, the Crossley’s acquired nineteen stores in the West Midlands, North-West and Wales from failed retailer First Stop Stationery in a £1 million deal. Like their high street stores, these were re-badged as The Works as opposed to their range of factory shop outlets then called Book Depot.

The Works acquired twenty-six outlets from Bargain Books and Bookworld chains in 2007 after their parent company was wound up, a fate that later impacted 

The Works as it also entered administration in January 2008. 

The Works was rescued in June 2008 by Anthony Solomon and private equity firm Endless, based in Leeds for £15 million. At this point the chain had reduced to two-hundred-and-twenty-six stores. 

Solomon brought in a new managing director, Bob Lister, who had worked with him previously at The Factory Shop Group. Under the new team, the business began to recover and expand once more, with some stores re-opening and other new shops on fresh sites. Total sales for 2008/9 reached £88.8 million, and by July 2010 the number of outlets had climbed back to two-hundred-and-sixty. The owners then declared their intention to sell the chain in early 2011 for £80m.

TheWorks.co.uk—the company’s first e-commerce platform—was launched in January 2012.

It was announced in July 2018 that The Works was to be floated on the UK Stock Exchange, with an initial share price of 160 pence, which equated to a market valuation of £100 million, a meteoric turn-around for the business.

Today headquartered in Hams Hall, near Coleshill, Staffordshire under the stewardship of chair Carolyn Bradley and CEO Gavin Peck, the business has entered its fourth decade of trading, with ambitious plans for the future following the success of initiatives such as “BookTok” a phenomenon that brought together book lovers on social media platform TikTok.

In last year’s annual report, Gavin Peck said: “We are pleased to report strong trading in FY22, consistently delivering sales well ahead of pre-COVID levels, and another record Christmas. This performance, and the resilience that our business has shown against a challenging external backdrop, demonstrates the positive effect of our “better, not just bigger” strategy, which still has a lot more upside to deliver.”

Despite warning that the rate of growth during the final months of its financial year had slowed on the back of the cost-of-living squeeze, the company said that operational improvements made throughout the year have helped offset these headwinds.

This was indeed no mean feat following the tumultuous years of COVID, and a hard-hitting digital attack in 2022, the result of which was that the business focussed a forensic eye on risks inhibiting its progress. They look at anything from internal dishonesty to the reality of the ransomware incident, the script of which seems to have leapt off the pages of one of the blockbuster thrillers that line their shelves.

 

Profit Protection

To help mitigate the ever-evolving risks, The Works turned to the experience of Dave Pardoe who was appointed head of profit protection in December 2021 at the height of peak trading.

Dave was the previous head of loss prevention (LP) at Card Factory where he was voted Risk Director of the Year at the 2018 Fraud Awards, while his team secured Retail LP Store Team of the Year. Dave—not David—is a straight-talking, committed, and passionate professional who is not daunted by the challenge of helping businesses identify and resolve what he refers to as “preventable” loss.

A disruptor by nature, he began life at Card Factory as a security consultant on a three-month retainer which turned into a six-year odyssey with the value gift business which, like many smaller footprint retailers, lacked the established policies and protocols to tackle emerging risk, the biggest of which was the far-reaching pandemic. 

“They asked me to stay on after COVID, but I felt it was time for someone new to come in and for me to move on,” he said.

He was attracted to The Works because of its strong brand personality and unwavering commitment to colleague well-being, as well as its progressive strategies around its communities and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programme.

“We live in a society where one in five families don’t have their own books. The Works has a strong collaboration with the National Literacy Trust around reading, writing, and learning for families that are stretched, which I think is magical.”

“It was also an opportunity to work for one of the UK’s top small retailers which has undergone some really rapid growth which is part of the challenge, because during periods of transformation some of the existing processes don’t keep pace.”

“I wanted to achieve a legacy and landscape around better colleague safety from crime and loss, and to do this I had to put in the right building blocks,” he continued.

In terms of stock loss and the wider risk of internal theft, Dave, who is a staunch advocate of collaboration with external vendors, delivered data mining into the business with a view to identifying the previously undetected anomalies at the point-of-sale.

Christmas is a particular time of challenge and difficulty when the UK is in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis and can be a time when dishonest members of a store team may look to exploit weak point-of-sale processes and store policies, relying on loopholes to hide their criminality.

Internal theft still remains a taboo subject for most retailers with little in the way of reporting, as employees either resign under investigation or are simply “let go”, potentially to another retailer without a criminal record.

However, a Freedom of Information request from Crona-I, a UK information service for business, revealed that almost 6,000 workers were caught stealing from their employer during 2022, a fifth more than the previous year and a factor believed to be driven by cost-of-living concerns.

By investing in IntelliQ’s data mining system, Dave understood he was lifting the lid on what was potentially a large problem, and he is still in the process of identifying the scale of the issue as the system continues to crunch the numbers.  

Wicklander-Zulawski qualified, Dave is a believer in the empathy-led, firm but fair approach and understanding the motivation of colleagues who have made the wrong choices.

 

Inventory Control

He also recognises that you can’t manage a problem unless you can measure it, and beyond the theft issue, losses can naturally occur in a business that has such a large inventory, therefore there was also a need to invest in more robust stock counting protocols to provide greater transparency across millions of stock keeping units (SKUs).

“I could have brought in third-party counting, but this would not have engendered colleague involvement and I really wanted to empower them to drive better accuracy,” said Dave who reached out to Zebra Technologies and their Workcloud Inventory Visibility solution (formerly Zebra SmartCount), which allows store colleagues to use handheld devices to capture stock file accuracy correctly and instantly with complete control.

“It has been superb—I now talk to store colleagues who have enjoyed doing a full stock count out-of-hours, which is unheard of in the retail industry.”

The example of accuracy has been so strong that Dave has become a zealot of the technology, speaking at a recent Zebra conference in Las Vegas to global audiences about the experiences in his stores.   

Patricia Lacey, Zebra Workcloud software specialist, said Dave specified the requirement so the system was bespoke to The Works’ needs.

“It has generated staff engagement and full ownership of their stock file—it is their store, their stock, their result,” she said.

“The staff run their own count and trust in the result which means they have more skin in the game because they know their store best.”  

“Workcloud Inventory Visibility allowed The Works to plan their own counts at a time that suits the store managers and staff, because flexibility was, and continues to be. a key driver.” 

“The platform includes rigorous algorithms to ensure integrity of the count and that all activity is captured, and the process was also approved by their external auditors. Workcloud Inventory Visibility reports provide insights and does all the heavy lifting—there is no need to extract data sets to create different reports—they are all there in just a few clicks,” she continued.

“Our solution is very simple; we build the platform based on what our customers want.  So yes, if there are complexities, like there are at The Works with such a large stock file, we work together through what is needed.  Our objective as a business is to return the files in the structure and format required to make it as seamless as possible, post-count.”

“For Dave, I believe putting technology in the hands of staff and giving them the right tools to deliver the very important task of stock counting, was well received.   Managers feel a sense of accomplishment when the count is closed.”

“Dave is a great advocate of Workcloud Inventory Visibility which we really appreciate, and he is equally happy to share the success he has had by moving from third-party to self-directed. Many of our clients are happy to share “what good looks like”, we are very lucky.”

 

External Threat and Safety

Dave is also looking to invest in a CCTV proof-of-concept in high-risk stores through the peak season which may also include “watch boxes” which provide the placebo effect and impression of facial recognition but without capturing any customer data. 

Ongoing negotiations with his own merchandisers and suppliers into the business has also yielded results in terms of moving higher value product away from the front of store and close to the doors or on supplier’s own display gondolas and rather nearer to the point-of-sale / till front as part of what he describes as an “alternative display” strategy.

“We had highly acquisitive items such as collectable cards in some stores close to the front doors and suffered significant shrink.  Accordingly, we have instead put them closer to the till point and worked with the supplier so that they form part of the loss mitigation journey in terms of merchandising methodologies. 

“We have moved up to higher price point bestsellers books such as Peter Kay’s autobiography and the latest Richard Osman thriller, but I can genuinely see a time when we will use cutting-edge analytics and heat mapping to identify the best spots to optimise display and security.”

But it is colleague safety that has become talismanic for the seasoned risk professional who will be celebrating his sixtieth birthday in 2024.  Far from thoughts of retirement, he is energised by the challenge of keeping colleagues out of harm’s way.

He has also been fundamental in rolling out body-worn cameras in higher risk stores and has worked closely with Reveal to ensure that the body-worn camera investment is maximised, but the darker nights and the safety of colleagues travelling long distances to and from stores to open up or close down at the end of a shift have become a focus for the business and a personal mission for Dave.

“We have a real focus on the shorter days and darker nights and the greater risks this poses to staff members, particularly at this time of year when there is more money going through the tills which could make our stores and staff vulnerable,” he said. 

“I simply don’t accept that an employer can ignore the unique challenges that a minority of colleagues may have in their personal journey to and from work.”

“To that end, we have been working with Peoplesafe on their mobile phone app that can be activated in the event that an employee reaches a place of concern such as isolated car parks or underpasses. At the push of a button on the app of their personal phone, they have the comfort of knowing that someone is listening and can support them through their journey and raise an alarm if needed,” he added.

Dave argues that such developments are important for recruitment and retention purposes:  “If people don’t feel safe, they will simply leave. Many younger people in retail will have had ten jobs in just a few years.” “As an employer we constantly need to challenge ourselves as to what are we doing to ensure retention.”

John Seddon of Peoplesafe said: “We have worked with Dave for a number of years, and this mobile app is the latest iteration of our work because there is a genuine need for reassurance around safety when colleagues are on their way to or from work.” 

“It has the additional benefit in that it can be used outside of work times as well, such as when they go clubbing or even walking the dog.”

The Works is a people-focussed business that has also introduced ways of allowing colleagues to access their wages early through Wagestream.

“This also has a safety connection in that they may have a major bill to pay, or their car needs an MOT, the failure of which will mean their car is off the road and they will have to make their way to work by other means. We signpost help where we can as it’s all part of making the “business better, not just bigger.”

As a former Post Office crime intelligence officer and someone who has worked in insurance investigations before crossing the rubicon into retail consultancy, Dave has truly covered and uncovered the full risk spectrum during a long career which shows no signs of stopping any time soon. 

The trademark approach of this proud Lancastrian now turned Yorkshireman is to bring order, grounded experience, process, and protocol to businesses that have all-too-rapidly outgrown their embryonic and entrepreneurial early days which makes him perfect for a business that cherishes craft and creativity in equal measure and all its guises. 

His engaging manner and sheer enthusiasm for his teams and the technology to support them has increased with his years of service to the point that he is a creative tour de force in the “better, not just bigger” approach of the business and a catalyst of positive change when it comes to reducing risk—he is, in short, throwing the works at The Works.

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