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Unidentified object in the packing area: the enigma of WH Smith

By Grant Harrison | The Future Customer

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May 30, 2018 | 4 min read

The retailer WH Smith has, once again, topped the latest Which? Survey as the worst shop on the UK high street.

The twitter account @WHS_Carpet provides a good smattering of WH Smith mis-steps that people find in the 1300 stores around the country. Like selling a tube of toothpaste for £8 in an NHS hospital. Today they’re also in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s cross hairs. His new BBC series – Britain’s Fat Fight - casts WH Smith as a major obesity menace!

But here’s the enigma:

WH Smith is voted worst shop on UK high street

WH Smith is voted worst shop on UK high street

WH Smith’s share price and profits have been increasing consistently over the last 5 years. In October 2017 they paid out a dividend of 33.6p – a 10% increase. They’re failing at their stated goal to be “Britain’s most popular high street stationer, bookseller and newsagent”, but given these financials should their shareholders give a damn?

Let’s look at their evil cousin. Ryanair. Kenny Jacobs, CMO, calls them “low cost, mean bastards”. They deliver low cost flights. End of story. Damn the negative PR. They keep focused on cost and keep shareholders happy. Is this WH Smith’s role model?

Over the last 10 years I admit that I have shopped at WH Smith. I haven’t enjoyed it. But I’ve done it. Especially in airports, where I’m faced with the notorious self-scanning checkouts – “unidentified object in the packing area” – argh!! As a committed customer marketer and champion I ask myself – “What can WH Smith do to make me smile?”

One answer is this. Take a leaf out of Ryanair’s book. Focus on one thing. And for WH Smith it sure won’t be price. It should be convenience.

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Convenience means what I want, when I want it, with a minimum of fuss. When I’m traveling let me buy an adaptor and a magazine quickly and be on my way. When I’m walking down the high street I’ll run in for the Minstrels and a paper.

Convenience means sorting the following areas:

1) Frictionless payment;

2) Self scanning that works;

3) Best selling product lines featured and championed;

4) More locations where I need them.

WH Smith are balancing customer convenience and resentment for now. But doubling down on convenience will take them off the naughty list and put them on the list of best high street retailers.

Come on WH Smith – show us what you’ve got.

Grant Harrison is executive vice president at The Future Customer

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