June 1, 2018

The UK reveals its 100 worst retailers and it’s not good news for books


Who doesn’t love a good survey? WHSmith, that’s who. They’ve just been named the worst retailer on the UK High Street.

If you’re not British, you might not have heard of WHSmith. They have over 1,400 stores, with twenty-seven of them outside the UK in countries ranging from France to Australia. What is this store, you might ask, and what does the WH stand for?

Let me take you back to London, 1792, when oil-fueled street lamps flickered through smoke, carriages rattling along cobbled streets. Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna had just opened their first news kiosk, HW Smith in London’s Little Grosvenor Street. Smith had married Anna, a servant girl, in 1784, and as a result lost his inheritance. Could the newsstand change his fortune? Errr… no. Two months after the kiosk opened he died suddenly, leaving Anna with two-week-old William Henry Smith to raise and a business to run, which she ran until her death in 1816.

(Anyone else think this could make a great Netflix show?)

So, the company then passed to William Henry Smith and his brother Henry Edward, with the HW changed to WH, and “& Son” added (sorry, Henry Edward). William Henry built the business, adding stationery to the stand’s offerings, and eventually brought his son, also inventively called William Henry, into the business. They opened their first bookstall in London in 1848, followed by a plethora of kiosks at railway stations. The company remained in the Smith family until 1948, when, following the death of the third Viscount Hambleden (Henry Walton’s great-great-great grandson), shares had to be sold to the public, as the death duties (a cheery tax we pay in the UK when a relative dies) had wiped out company funds.

Phew, you still with me? The rest, as they say, is history. Chairmen came, chairmen went. New premises were acquired, new lines added. Could Walton Henry possibly have dreamed of the retail empire Smiths would become? With its £3.79 meal deals, CDs (yes, they still sell CDs and DVDs), toys (including Unicorn Poo Glittery Slime Putty), and the heady title of the UK’s worst retailer?

Current stores are an odd, undefinable miss-mash. Is it a stationer? A bookshop? No, it’s WHSmith! It does, however, hold huge sway when it comes to British book sales. Other than Waterstones, it’s the only retail chain which solidly stock books. It runs the Richard & Judy Book Club, which has a huge impact on book sales here, Oprah-style. So why has it been voted worst retailer?

Which? magazine surveyed 10,356 shoppers about their experiences at 100 major UK retailers and found WHSmith customers complained the shops are out of date and run-down, their products expensive, their staff are rude. Ben Clissitt, editor of Which?, told Sarah Butler at the Guardian:

“It is clear that our traditional high street is changing and while this is bad news for some retailers who have struggled to adapt, others have seized the opportunity to make their mark.

“Our findings show that if retailers can strike the right balance between good value, quality products and first-class customer service, shoppers will keep coming back to their stores.”

According to WHSmith, since only 184 shoppers offered comments for the survey, the picture painted in the results is unfair. That may be so, but the displeasure is nothing new: this is the eighth consecutive year WHSmith has come in either last or second-last. In fact, there’s a wonderfully biting Twitter account called WHS_Carpet that joyously shares consumers’ weird and confusing experiences in WHSmith stores, poking fun at ridiculous “offers” and peculiar layouts and shelving displays.

A spokesperson for WHSmith commented on the survey, saying: “We serve 12 million customers each week, and despite a challenging retail environment we continue to open new shops, and to maintain our presence on the UK High Street.”

Authors have been jumping to WHSmith’s defence, as Natasha Onwuemezi reports at the Bookseller. Joanna Harris said on Twitter, “While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstones, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.”

Later, she added, “This may be a good time to remind people getting sniffy about WH Smith that 3 in 10 children in this country do not own a single book, and that 1 in 10 adults is functionally illiterate.”

Dawn Finch, former president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, a UK association of librarians and information specialists, told Onwuemezi, “I’m reading a lot of snobby comments about how people should use ‘real’ bookshops. I’m assuming they mean independent bookshops? Well woop-de-do if you live in an area lucky enough to have one. Don’t knock where people get their reading material, that’s just entitled.”

When I was growing up, WHSmith was the only store selling books in my home town, and I loved perusing the shelves, buying all my required reading for school from that one shop. We do need WHSmith — let’s not wish for the UK book market to shrink even further. But is this really about the “snob” factor, or just about poorly managed, poorly stocked stores? Whether selling two-for-one chocolate or Gucci handbags, surely stores should look like they give at least half a shit?

Let’s be honest. Some of their shops could do with some sprucing up and a re-consideration of stock… and it would be nice if they would stop extorting book publishers. (Think those paperbacks you see in their book charts or piled high on tables reflected how damn good they are? Think again — it’s down to how much cash the publisher is willing to spend to get their books displayed.) But let’s also not give up on WHSmith. They have a role to play. Like reducing alcohol consumption.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.