There are few more iconic British brands than WH Smith, nor many more ubiquitous. 90% of people can reach a store within twenty minutes from their door, and 73% make at least one visit a year. For many, the name conjures up childhood memories of first encounters with classic literature, sumptuous atlases or a beguilingly niche magazine. But something is deeply wrong with this erstwhile national staple: it has become a travesty of trade, a grim parody of twenty-first century consumerism.
In this age of mission statements, WH Smith’s goal is ‘to be Britain’s most popular high street stationer, bookseller and newsagent’. But popular is a slippery term. WH Smith has sacrificed customer satisfaction at the altar of high-margin products. The typical store is now a bewildering mix of overpriced drink and junk food, haphazardly arranged magazines, miscellaneous stationery and seasonal tat; as out of view as possible are books, on which the company’s reputation was built. The bedlam is littered with the bizarre: bamboo ducks, four-foot scarecrows and children’s wetsuits. Attempting to browse is like strapping into a Tarkovksy film soundtracked by Aphex Twin. Navigation is now further complicated by the absurdity of squeezing into one (inevitably understaffed) corner the town’s Post Office, and into another the jewellery bazaar, Claire’s Accessories. It is hard to conjure up a worse consumer experience: even the vacuous inanity of a mobile phone shop floor can offer a seat to those burying heads in hands.
Yet there are few pedigrees on the high street to rival WH Smith’s. In 1792 Henry Walton Smith founded a newspaper shop on Little Grosvenor St, London. Two hundred years ago his son, WH, inherited the business, and duly honoured it with his initials. The company was swift to move into train stations, first at Euston in 1848, and very quickly became the leading news and book store across the country. To recognise national fame and service (particularly in Disraeli’s cabinet), the family was raised to a viscountcy in 1891. However, family involvement started to wane in the 1940s, and in 1996 the Smiths ceased to have any direct connection with the business.
How things have slid. Twitter is no metric for serious analysis but it can provide a telling sign of the times. While the official @WHSmith has attracted an average of 6,000 new followers each year since 2009, a rival grassroots account, @WHS_carpet, has been picking up 2,500 a year since 2013. The first account promotes the products and activity of the company proper. The second, increasingly popular feed is devoted exclusively to showcasing the decrepit, chaotic and insulting state of WH Smith stores: more than 8,000 ‘followers’ (read ‘disgruntled customers’) regularly display the sorry results of underinvestment twinned with greed.
Greed is an emotive term, but it is what one has to reach for on seeing Jelly Tots (yes!) for 99p, a 500ml soft drink for £1.99, a bag of Maltesers for £3.35 or six mince pies for £6.99. Simple transactions are obstructed by unsolicited offers. Buy a pen and you will be asked to consider a doorstop-sized chocolate slab, or a foot-long (and now unhappily emasculated) Toblerone. To avoid paying a usurious price for water, customers must claim it free with an unwanted broadsheet that chills incongruously in the fridge. If served by a human, your hand will be filled with unwelcome promotional leaflets; if you take refuge at a self-service machine, your own cameo as employee will be rewarded with electronic prompts for chocolate oranges. What is the harm in baffling or appalling nine out of ten customers, the company muses, if a marginal profit can be obtained begrudgingly from the tenth?
Attempts to maximise profit range beyond impulse purchases. The WH Smith strategy is focused on expanding its ‘travel’ stores, which stand in well-established locations at train stations, airports, motorway services and hospitals. This does not reflect any increased need for those on the move to read, write, eat or drink. Rather, these stores enjoy real or effective monopolies and therefore allow margins to be pushed to extremes.
Two recent scandals reflect the ruthlessness of the company’s practice. In August 2015, WH Smith was accused of charging airport customers for VAT, which did not need to be levied, and pocketing that money without reduction to the customer. In the same month, the company’s differential pricing was exposed, with essentials such as water, food and paper being appreciably more expensive in hospital shops. Unsurprisingly, 2015 yielded profit of £123m before tax, with the chief executive receiving a pay package nearing £4m. Notwithstanding customer outrage, the share price has done wonders, rocketing from under £4 in 2006 to over £18 earlier this year.
To call WH Smith a bookseller is a stretch. There is scant evidence of the company seeking to offer a high-quality selection to its customers. Some careful, root-and-branch curation here could salvage this most traditional arm of the company. Instead, it blames its declining sales on bad books, asserting in its most recent annual report that the ‘quality of publishing is still the biggest driver of market performance’. Could there be a more fatuous attitude to the whole spectrum of printed literature? Pandering to profit, WH Smith relegates high-quality stock to low-profile shelves, instead devoting its energies to its Richard and Judy Book Club and a teen-focused channel run by millionaire vlogger Zoella.
WH Smith is now nothing short of a national embarrassment – yet one regrettably prominent to any foreign visitor. For a generation or more the company has traded on the familiarity, trustworthiness and omnipresence of its brand, but that game is now up. With the legacy of WH Smith frittered away, and Staples now disappearing from sight, the opportunity for a good and honest high-street shop that combines bookseller, stationer and newsagent lies wide open. The British public deserve and expect better.