Picture above: Sarah Hitchings, Sales & Marketing Director, Window Widgets
ANCILLARIES FOR THE FENESTRATION INDUSTRY, POST COVID-19, AND THE VIEW OF WINDOW WIDGETS
Chris Champion, Glass News’ Editor, talks to Sarah Hitchings, Window Widgets’ Sales and Marketing Director, about how the Covid-19 epidemic will affect Window Widgets’ business, specifically, and the universal ancillaries sector in general.
Window Widgets is a supplier and manufacturer of ancillaries of every kind, from Bay Poles to Couplers and from Corner-Posts to Bridge Packers, made from a variety of materials. Did you have to close, completely, or have you managed to provide a service of any kind during the lockdown?
Sarah Hitchings: We’ve closed completely for several weeks in terms of operations, based on government guidance and the responsibility we have for the workforce. However, we’ve been able to maintain a skeleton team for sales, marketing, supply chain, technical and finance. In addition, we’ve provided a different service in terms of 3D printing of surgical mask straps and visor bands for hospitals and care homes.
How many of your customers locked down completely? Of those that kept open, what level of service did they offer during that time?
Sarah Hitchings: The majority closed and as an industry we responded responsibly and most businesses kept a brand/marketing presence, as did we. Now we, along with our large network of customers are now re-opening in a safe and responsible manner.
Did you continue to receive supplies from your various suppliers and did you see a marked difference according to their geographical origin?
Sarah Hitchings: We didn’t receive any goods from suppliers as most of our products are produced in-house and we’ll be resuming production from 18th May, with existing raw material supplies in the short-term.
You offer a wide range of products, if you have to source materials or products from abroad, do you anticipate that you may have to change suppliers in the future or look for new ones?
Sarah Hitchings: All our products are either produced in-house at our factory in Gloucester or sourced from the UK. Some of our UK suppliers also have facilities abroad for manufacturing and distribution and so we operate a very robust and effective supply chain, as this pandemic has shown.
Do you think ‘the blame game’ over responsibility for starting this pandemic will influence either your thinking over suppliers or prove to cause problems from a political aspect?
Sarah Hitchings: As I said our suppliers will not be affected, but I think a lot of consumers will look to back the “Buy British” campaign, as they did with Brexit to some extent, but how long that lasts will be interesting. Are people prepared and ready to pay more for a quality made British product..?!
In your opinion, will there be an increase in the amount of product purchased from Europe and less dependence on overseas suppliers or will logistics and world trade return to how it was before coronavirus?
Sarah Hitchings: Similar answer to above question and I think most will return to pre COVID-19 in the way that they operate.
What have been the key difficulties with returning to work? What exceptional arrangements have you made in terms of staff and customer protection?
Sarah Hitchings: Re-writing safe operating procedures to include social distancing and taking temperatures of all staff before allowing to start shift, along with putting 2-metre markers out has been the first part of our back to work programme. This is also supplemented with additional breaks for handwashing and a paper-free process of delivery notes, so that there is no contact between delivery drivers and customers. As a business, judging demand and how many people to bring back has been a challenging process.
Relationships are bound to change following the pandemic, particularly if you have had customers who have been slow or reluctant to pay what they owe you. Has that been an issue for Window Widgets and, if so, is there a way to repair the damaged relationship?
Sarah Hitchings: We’ve been fair in allowing customers to put forward payment plans with us, we’ve only put customers on full stop if January 2020 was outstanding (that’s pre lockdown so no excuse!). For February balances, we have allowed customers to pay for orders up front and we’ll allocate payment to oldest invoices first. For outstanding balances at the end of March we are providing customers to clear the balance by the end of June.
I think as a key supplier we have to be flexible and work with customers to allow them to continue to trade, we don’t want to cause unnecessary supply problems, as we’re all in a difficult position. It’s a case of working together for our collective benefit.
Looking at timescales, have you re-opened for business or, if not, how long do you anticipate it will be before you are fully operational?
Sarah Hitchings: We partially re-opened operationally on Monday 11th May and we’ve had a key worker team (all at home) during the whole of lockdown. We will phase re-opening in line with sales demand and continue to ensure operational employees feel physically and mentally safe to come back to the factory and warehouse, as demand increases. Those who can work from home are continuing to do so for the foreseeable future.
Have you started to receive deliveries from your suppliers and, if not, when do you expect those deliveries to commence?
Sarah Hitchings: We expect deliveries to commence in a couple of weeks, but our own factory will return before the external suppliers do and as mentioned above, we have sufficient stocks of raw materials to commence production.
Do you think we are talking about months or, perhaps years, before Window Widgets can say that you have returned to the same financial position as you were prior to December 2019?
Sarah Hitchings: The banks have said it will take 2 years to recover, a lot for us will depend upon the fabricators and installers being able to ramp back up to full capacities. Prior to December 2019 we were owned by Masonite, so our financial position was very different! Having done the MBO in December this has certainly been a challenge we were not expecting, but what a learning curve hey! Our financial partners have been very supportive and we’re confident we’ll return better and stronger than ever.
Finally, what is your vision for the future? Will Window Widgets have changed substantially? Can it be as successful as it once was? And do you think the market will return as it was and, if so, how long do think that will take?
Sarah Hitchings: I’m confident that the market will return and I’ve been monitoring all the activities on our consumer facing brand The Residence Collection. The traffic and leads through there have been phenomenal, as home improvement has certainly been the talk of lockdown with painting, decorating and gardening projects happening across the country. So, I firmly believe that we will continue with larger projects such as windows, doors and conservatories and we’ll see a strong return.
We had lots of projects scheduled for later in the year that we’ve managed to bring forward during lockdown and a case in point is the Window Widgets Trade Counter Network which is launching soon. It’s a postcode search for builders, installers etc to be able to find their nearest trade counter selling Window Widgets parts, so we’re extending our reach. We’ve also thought about the way we produce materials, learning a lot from the 3D printing we did for the NHS and care homes, as to what else we can print…
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