Walking past the window of a scruffy WH Smith store recently, it struck me how the brand has changed over time and what a different proposition its brand represents in the 21st century.
In the 1970s and 1980s, WH Smith was a premium high street player, trusted alongside Boots as a destination for high quality products and advice. The store on Midland Road in Bedford, where I grew up, was clean and smart, characterised by the distinctive and appealing smell of books and stationery. One of my favourite shops, I always looked forward to browsing its shelves and selecting my back-to-school pencil case. The store benefited from the hushed atmosphere of a library and the sweeping open spaces of a confident brand leader.
In 2018, a visit to a high street WH Smith store involves shuffling sideways between cramped units, trying not to trip over the ragged hem of a torn carpet, and struggling to find what you are looking for amongst the bins, gondolas and shelf wobblers competing for your attention.
The WH Smith brand has a long heritage stretching back as far as the 18th century when Henry Walton Smith launched as a small news vendor in Little Grosvenor Street in London in 1792. The WH Smith brand was born in 1828 when his son William Henry Smith took over and direct family involvement continued until 1972. The company has grown and diversified over the years, buying and selling interests in many retail brands and sectors including publishing and DIY. It has acquired and divested itself of brands including Waterstones, and currently owns Funky Pigeon.
Its strategy is based on growing profits from the two strands of its core business, high street and travel outlets, operating more than 600 stores in towns and cities, and 800 units at railways stations and airports.
Interestingly, revenues from the high street strand have been falling for successive years and were recorded at £610M in 2017, some 5% lower than the previous year. However, profits continue to grow, keeping shareholders happy, apparently at the expense of the customer experience. The latest Annual Report contains only a cursory reference to brand and reputation, and no overt plans to address the condition and appearance of retail outlets.
Looking at the store I passed (see image), the scruffy and battered facia only serves to highlight the stark appearance of the window display. The prevailing message is of discounted prices and sales, but the incomplete and empty display does not imply that the bargains are piled high. The message of a ‘New Year, New Start’ does not chime with the goods on show (a couple of home printers and a stack of stationery boxes). And the unbranded sign taped up in the entrance lobby with its bald statement that ‘This door is locked’ is far from welcoming.
The business could be in danger of relying on its heritage and the ubiquity of its stores, while at the same time cutting costs to maximise profits as opposed to investing in the future of the brand.
Conversely, the travel strand of the WH Smith business, tends to present a better proposition with its smart bookshop at Euston maintaining the heritage of its first bookstall which was opened there is 1848.
In 2017, WH Smith revived its iconic 1970s brown and orange ‘cube’ brand for a limited period to celebrate its 225th anniversary. This classic shape remains universally recognisable and has even inspired a fashion collection by Anya Hindmarch based on classic 1980s logos.
Maybe the company should consider capitalising on the strong associations with the ‘cube’ to bring it back permanently, just as the Co-op has done with its 1968 blue and white square logo.
Re-branding and focusing on improving the customer experience in its high street stores could go a long way to stemming the flow of its revenues at a time when it probably has most to fear from online predators.