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Yet again, the 225 year old retailer with such a rich history (it invented the bar code) has been named as the worst retailer in the UK.

It’s the 9th year in a row it has been in the bottom two, according to the Which? survey.

Customers who took part cited poor value for money and an unpleasant shopping experience as factors in the poor scores.

As a business, WH Smith is having a tough time on the high street, but this is being offset by relative success at airports and railway stations. It’s also worth noting there are many areas of the UK where WH Smith has taken on responsibility for running the local Post Office and without this, these areas may not have a post office. This is something they should make more of.

I regularly shop in WH Smith, both in their high street stores and at airports and railway stations. I agree with the results of the survey but I think there are some simple steps they could take to improve the performance of their business and make customers feel better about the whole experience.

  1. Sort the layout. Admit defeat, call in experts and take their advice. The typical WH Smith store is a horror story layout. It reminds me a bit of the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix with all the tight corners and barely enough space to squeeze past with a bag over your shoulder. It’s as if they hope you might trip over a stand of books, magazines, chocolate or staple guns and subsequently buy them all.
  2. Ditch the ‘scan your boarding pass’ nonsense at airports. I know it’s about VAT and better for everyone if they claim it back but it makes for a horrible, frustrating experience. At least give us the option to over-ride it. This option exists anyway because if you tell a staff member you don’t have your boarding pass or don’t want to scan it they over-ride the system anyway. Just get rid of it and come to some other arrangement to deduct the VAT. Customers hate it.
  3. Invest in staff engagement, training and help raise their morale. The typical WH Smith staff member that I have encountered just look utterly defeated, with one or two notable exceptions. If it’s a horrible place to shop, it looks to me as though it must be 10 times worse to work there. In the past I’ve witnessed (and reported) instances of what I’d consider workplace bullying. There seems to be at best a real issue around staff morale and teamwork and at worst some far more serious situations. Some of the stores close the human checkouts, forcing customers to use self-scan while the few staff members in the place stack shelves and tidy things up. That must be soul destroying and the company should direct more resources towards engaging and serving customers and making staff feel valued.
  4. Once there’s a happy, motivated workforce, it’s time to get them excited about the new layout and the new product ranges. WH Smith tries to be far too many different things. It should sell fewer products but have more knowledge and love for these products. Whether it’s books, toys, news media, magazines or confectionery, it would be great if the staff or even the signage throughout the store could muster some knowledge and enthusiasm for it all. Staff are barely visible, there’s no energy, no excitement and I wouldn’t have any confidence asking a WH Smith staff member if a particular book was any good or if a certain toy was suitable for a 7 year old. They do seem to have some good relationships with Panini and other football sticker and trading card manufacturers and I’ve seen them run some ‘swap’ events – they should do more of this and aim for similar with other product lines.
  5. Where’s the ‘selfie’ opportunity? Kingdom of Sweets is another retailer I’m not a fan of but even it has been able to instil a bit of fun into its stores – their London Piccadilly Circus site has a ‘selfie’ area. Where’s the equivalent in WH Smith? Who would even dream of taking a ‘selfie’ inside WH Smith? Given some of the customers they hope to attract, that’s a sure sign they’re in trouble.
  6. Like many other retailers, WH Smith has brought in self-scan checkouts at many locations. These have their place but they should be sure to keep a human presence alongside these, as outlined above. Where they do use self-scan, why not give the automated voice some personality, even something relevant to the local area where the store is situated? Marks and Spencer use Ant and Dec, Poundland’s self-scan checkouts have some good chat and a bit of personality. There’s an opportunity here to use locally relevant voice to generate a bit of goodwill and fun. They’ll likely annoy as many people as they entertain but it would help the chain establish a ‘voice’, a stronger brand and become more human.
  7. Above all, WH Smith needs a human face. Last week it’s Chief Executive Stephen Clarke announced he was to step down. In his first interview after 3 and a half years in the role, he described himself as ‘publicity phobic’. That puts him and the business at quite a disadvantage. Although I enjoy working with clients who similarly hate the idea of appearing on video or giving interviews, and helping them improve and gain confidence, there are some people who just hate it, don’t want to do it, for whatever reason, and nobody should be forced to. However, a business of that size, public facing, really does need someone to step up and speak on its behalf and defend it in the face of criticism. It doesn’t need to be the Chief Executive – although I do think presentation and media relations skills are important for the modern leader – but there needs to be someone, they need to be good and they need to be consistent.

It’s unfortunate to read the corporate response to the survey results from WH Smith where they effectively attack its credibility. That suggests to me they are unable to recognise their flaws and don’t particularly care about the customer experience. Results like this are a warning. Everyone has experienced Amazon levels of customer service. Many of us have been to Disney and been wowed by how they do things and we’ve all now seen the relationship Innocent Smoothies has with its customer base. People have an expectation and if they don’t take action, my fear is that the oldest retailer in the world will soon be experiencing its very own ‘Kodak’ moment’.

As things stand, it won’t be missed.

Categories: BrandNews