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May 28, 2014

WH Smith voted UK’s “worst retailer” while Waterstones is one of the best


WHSmith is "crowded" with “limited stock”, according to consumers. Image via Flickr

WHSmith is “crowded” with “limited stock”, according to consumers. Image via Flickr

A consumer survey has named WH Smith the UK’s “worst retailer”, placing the chain store at the bottom of a list of 100 retailers. It’s the second year in a row that WH Smith has found itself at the bottom of the league.

The Bookseller reports that the consumer group Which? led the survey, and asked 12,500 people to rate the shops they had used in the last 12 months. Consumers had to score shops on price, their products and their customer service.

Customers complained that WH Smith stores were ‘crowded’ and that they had ‘limited stock’. These complaints seem paradoxical: the shops contain too much stuff, but also not enough. WH Smith specializes in a small range of products —namely newspapers and magazines, stationery, books and snacks—so it isn’t clear if those complaint refer to its limited product offering in this range, the facts that it runs out stock too quickly, or that it is crowded with useless products.

While WH Smith does a good job of stocking a huge range of magazines, many of them relating to niche hobbies and interests and rarely found elsewhere, its attitude to other products, such as books, is to pile them high and sell them cheap. Add to that its vast array of severely reduced sweets and chocolate, and you can see why customers could begin to feel crowded. But let’s not forget that WH Smith shops are often located in small retail units, and its USP isn’t to offer a delightful browsing experience, but to sell certain essentials cheaply.

A spokesperson speaking to The Bookseller defended the rating:

This exercise is very misleading as WH Smith does not fit into any of the survey categories, while products like newspapers and magazines are not those that customers would ‘recommend’ a retailer for. The 104 customers that commented on WH Smith in this survey are not reflective of the 12 million customers that visit our stores each week, where our own independent survey of over a thousand customers continues to rate us highly.

Meanwhile, Waterstones was celebrating after coming in joint fourth place with the department store John Lewis. According to The Bookseller, customers praised the national bookshop’s ‘comfortable’ environment and remarked that staff “always seem to go the extra mile”. This should make Waterstones m.d. James Daunt happy. He has spoken repeatedly about the bookshops as destination places, and spoke in February about the need for his bookshops to be “outstanding” in order for them to rival Amazon.

Daunt may also be pleased to be in joint place with John Lewis, who owns the high-end supermarket Waitrose. After he was appointed m.d. of Waterstones, he gave an interview to the Guardian in which he repeatedly praised Waitrose; more recently he told RetailWeek:

I shop in Waitrose, which is mad because it’s expensive. There’s a Sainsbury’s next door, and if I shop there it’s less expensive and I get the same food. So why do I shop in one and not the other? It’s nicer. I come out of there happier.

It’s clear he wants to create a similar experience in Waterstones, where quality and a welcoming environment trump low prices and heavy discounts. With such a good consumer rating, this approach seems to be working.


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.