The best student job I ever had was working in the record department of WH Smith in Brent Cross. It was a huge store, double the width of single shop units in the mall and stretching over two floors. A measure of its importance for record sales was that it could attract number-one artists for guest appearances, though this stopped after Culture Club fans trashed the entire place in an effort to get a glimpse of Boy George. As the frenzied kids trampled everything in their path, a rightly frightened singer hid in the staff canteen.
Aside from the risk of death by fans, the job was pretty good. The pay was decent; my colleagues were nice; we got good discounts on records; and Boy George ate in our canteen (once). I don’t want to get too misty-eyed. It was never cool. Working at WH Smith was not the same as working in a Vivienne Westwood boutique (staff at Westwood did not wear brown jackets and orange ties, for one thing). But people were happy to work there. It had a good career structure and for full-timers there was a pathway to rise up the ranks.
While WH Smith was a retail giant, it was not an emporium of the unexpected. One did not love it in the way you loved, say, Tower Records or Waterstones. But it was always worth a visit. There were toys, whole walls of books, music, stationery obviously, newspapers, a huge array of magazines, sweets, small electrical goods and so on. As a general store, Smith’s was rarely the best shop for any particular item but it was often the best bet. Many a dull family holiday was salvaged for me by the book department of a small-town WH Smith.
So it feels sad, if not unexpected, to discover that WH Smith has again been named by Which? as the most hated store on the high street. In fact it has finished in the bottom two for the past eight years. It is officially the Real Madrid of loathed retailers. The reasons are obvious. There is next to nothing you can buy in a WH Smith that cannot be obtained more easily or cheaply online or in a decent supermarket.
Faced with this reality, the business slashed costs on the high street, running down both the stores and the product lines, cutting staff and stocking up on junk food and cheap sandwiches.
Entertainment departments are long gone and, unless you are looking for the Richard and Judy Book Club choice or the autobiographies of reality TV stars, the book offering is pretty thin. It concentrated instead on building up stores in airports and stations, where its wares seemed more immediately essential, where the margins are probably higher, and kept the business in the black.
As a business strategy it has worked, but financial survival for WH Smith has meant cutting back its high-street stores until you have even fewer reasons to bother visiting them. Last month the boy returned from a visit to purchase exam supplies, fuming about how expensive it had become and lamenting that he had not gone to Tesco instead. The staff seem disengaged and ordinary products are overpriced as the shop seeks maximum returns from whatever it can manage to sell. Boy George will not be returning unless he launches a range of creme egg.
Look at any decent-sized high street today and one emerging trend is the demise of the general retailer. Woolworths and BHS are already gone. Can a no-frills WH Smith avoid their fate? Increasingly, the high streets that still thrive are filled with food stores, coffee shops, overpriced boutiques, hairdressers and chemists. The general retail outlet has lost its place. Now you need a special purpose to pay the price of a high-street spot — a service that cannot be acquired online, or an ability to answer an immediate need, say food for dinner or prescription medicines.
Once a high street without a WH Smith seemed unimaginable. Now it seems almost inevitable. Perhaps its future lies solely in the trains-and-planes markets, and maybe there was no way around market trends. But even so, it is hard to escape the view that, in the high street, it chose to dodge death by slowly committing suicide. One thing is sure. It doesn’t look like we’ll miss it when it has gone.
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