What can retailers learn from WHSmith being voted worst High Street brand?

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What is WHSmith doing wrong and what does it tell retailers about the way they should approach their customer vision?

Consistency is usually a positive thing in the retail world. But for WHSmith, voted the worst high street brand for the eighth year in a row in Which?’s recent annual retail report, it’s not so good. The brand is one of the UK’s longest standing retailers, last year celebrating its 225th anniversary. So how many more birthdays can it expect?

If you look at the financial figures (surprisingly very good, with the latest group results up 4% year-on-year and shares up by a fifth over the last 12 months), you’d expect another 225. However, if you believe that financial results are a backward-looking measure and customer satisfaction levels are an indicator of what happens next, could WHSmith be joining Woolworths, Toys R Us, Jaeger, House of Fraser and BHS?

When I was a geeky young teenager I used to love going to “Smith’s”. With my pocket money burning a hole in my wallet I had to spend it somewhere and the rest of the High Street was just too intimidating. I wasn’t cool enough for HMV so I’d get ignored, but the reverse was true at Woolies where my every move was monitored in case I was a shoplifter.

But under WHSmith’s one roof, I could buy a train magazine, a new book and the latest must-have single – while Mum picked up the Radio Times. The place knew what it was offering: the potential to buy a weekend’s worth of distractions in a safe and reliable environment.        

The world is different today. To survive hyper-competition, retailers need a unifying vision.

Unfortunately, WHSmith has chosen a vision for the investors, at the expense of the consumers. Topline figures are bumped up by jamming as much product in as possible, while the bottom line is improved by cutting costs (check out @WHS_Carpet on Twitter to see how well this is approach is going down with customers).

Is there a customer vision at all? At best, it’s probably based on distress purchases: I’m on my way to a kid’s party, I need a gift voucher (or, I’m in hospital and I need toothpaste). And the staff, surrounded by frustrated shoppers, fizzing strip lights and dirty carpets, don’t have a clue how they can add value. One branch I visited recently had no member of staff in sight – just an old-fashioned bell on the counter with a hand-scrawled sign telling me to ‘ring for attention’.

WHSmith as the Fawlty Towers of retail brands? It’s a sad state of affairs for its customers.

Do you understand your customers?

A unifying vision shows a clear understanding of your customers’ wants, and what you uniquely can offer. Even when they don’t yet need it.

Lush knows that, and it was voted top in the Which? Report. It has a clear vision, clearly expressed: ‘cosmetics should be fresh, fun, and ethically produced, so all our products are handmade so we know exactly what goes into them’.

Like all great unifying visions, it makes every decision in the company easier: what products do we stock, how do we test them, who de we hire, how do we price, what’s our instore experience, what’s our social media about?

For Lush staff, this means they know what they’re working for and what’s going to add value for Lush’s customers.

Is it too late for WHSmith? No. But it needs to align the whole organisation with one consistent vision, tell one story and speak with one voice.

But more than one vision and one story, their awareness of that story allows them to speak with a unified voice that engages the customer, even outside of the moment of purchase.

Is it too late for WHSmith? No. But it needs to align the whole organisation with one consistent vision, tell one story and speak with one voice.

Ultimately this will delight investors for the long term too. I will pay an extra 10p in the pound for a distress purchase but I’ll pay an extra 30p for a delightful experience.

What made WHSmith appealing 30 years ago is perhaps what could make it appealing today – a safe and reliable place to shop. In fact, its travel branches, especially those in airports, are already doing this successfully (and actually buoying up WHSmith’s overall financial performance). They have worked out what the masses need to keep them happy on an eight-hour flight to New York. The shops are better laid out, the staff feel more engaged and you know that you can come out with a half decent book, a magazine, headache tablets, a tasty snack and some water.

So, the trick will be to find out what will give the same experience to customers on the High Street and build its vision, story and voice around that.

I would be sad to see WHSmith disappear. A redirection of investment now into a more sympathetic customer understanding that creates a more consistent experience, with more new store fits and staff training will ultimately boost profits. And it might just guarantee another 200+ birthdays.

About Chris West

Chris West

Chris founded Verbal Identity in 2010. He works directly with CEOs and CMOs to define their brand’s strategic vision for the next 5 years and beyond. Since founding Verbal Identity, he’s worked with some of Britain’s best-loved luxury brands, as well as the world’s largest brewer and America’s biggest car company.

Chris’s approach to defining brands helped Hunter Boot generate consistent double-digit growth following their relaunch in 2014, and recently he developed the brand strategy for Belstaff, which led to its successful acquisition in 2017.

Previously, Chris ran a project-based advertising agency for 10 years working with clients including Sky, Unilever, EMAP, Harry Winston, Selfridges and Ocado. Before that, he was an award-winning copywriter for Saatchi and Saatchi, BBH, Leagas Delaney, RKCR and Mother. He takes occasional NED positions on client boards, most recently with VOTARY, the successful new skincare brand. Outside of work, he has contributed to The Sunday Times and a leading luxury magazine, and his screenplay won Best Film at the Barcelona Film Festival.

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