Survival Tips for Stagnant Retailers
How long will WH Smith survive on a cheap chocolate model?
WH Smith Staff at the till: “Would you like a bar of chocolate as well?”
Customer: “No, I’d like you to stop wasting my time and sort your service out, because it’s a joke.”
In recent weeks we’ve seen that WH Smith has been voted the ‘worst retailer on the UK High Street’ in a survey of more than 10,000 consumers. The survey, carried out by consumer group Which? reported that the customer complaints varied from outdated shops, to expensive products, to rude staff. I think it’s pretty clear that as high street brands go, WH Smith has chosen to occupy no-mans land of brand positioning – stand for nothing, and offer anything. Latterly, the ‘anything’ has taken the form of pushing cheap chocolate to every customer at the till. Presumably this is driven by the belief that fuelling the UK’s obesity problem might offset the poor customer experience, and pad the brand’s profits along with its customer’s waistlines. This strategy has seen WH Smith cling on in the high street when other retailers have called quits, but how long can it last?
In the face of competition from the mighty Amazon and other on-line retailers, the almost farcical mark-up on the price of commodities like pens and stationery will not be the only thing that adds to the poor PR for WH Smith. After all, it can’t just be the price of goods that has resulted in WH Smith finding itself ranked in the bottom two of the Which? survey for an eighth year in a row. It also won’t be solely down to the wonky shelves, tasteless decor and old stock, nor the fact that the desperate desire to push impulse buys saw the Blackpool store selling both Easter and Christmas chocolate at the same time. These are just symptoms of a bigger malaise that manifests itself in two questions that WH Smith marketing team seemingly ignore on a daily basis:
What do our customers truly value?
What customer experience can we offer that will deliver this value and differentiate us from competitors?
What is it that drives the WH Smith shopper? Is it price, product, service or convenience? Do consumers really want to pay the WH Smith prices for a Parker pen they can find for half the price on Amazon? I doubt it. So clearly it can’t be price or product. The Which? report indicates that customers don’t go there for the service so it can only be convenience that is the draw. The reality is its travel division and the captive audience of customers travelling through airports and train stations are propping up the brand. And ‘needs must’ has never been a sustainable business strategy.
The response to the survey hasn’t exactly been reassuring from WH Smith, to say the least. Commenting on the results that saw them finish bottom, a spokesperson said "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”. Hmm. I’m not sure they’ve seen the point. As I write this House of Fraser is teetering on the brink of collapse. Remember high street retailers like BHS? Or C&A? Or Woolworths? They too served millions of customers every week and despite challenging trading conditions they opened new stores – until they didn’t anymore and went bust.
If there’s a moment of nostalgia, or added value or uniqueness that can feature as part of the WH Smith customer experience to create fondness for the brand, now is the time for it to take the place of the cheap chocolate. But before the brand’s marketing team and agency sit in a room to shoot from the hip with pithy ideas, the question of who the core WH Smith customer is and what they truly value has to be answered. This is of course, assuming they’ve identified their core customers in the first place. Now the answer might well be “We are in the mass market and so we serve everyone”. And, if that is their answer, the reality is they will be special to no one and I shall be surprised if they are still around when Which? conducts its 2020 consumer survey. If I am wrong I shall be pleased to eat my hat (chocolate of course).