WH Smith: more high street stores

WH Smith’s Stephen Clarke has told The Bookseller: “We have identified the opportunity for 50 new high street stores to open in areas we are currently not represented—mainly in small market towns”.

This is all of a piece with Smith’s acquisition of British Bookshops from the administrators earlier this year.  (Did BBS’s IP include their hit-list of future locations?)  What WHS appears to be doing is developing an “Express” format – like the supermarkets – that can be applied in smaller locations.  Or, in other words, they’re taking the learnings from their highly successful Travel division, and applying it to high streets, where sales have been in decline for years.

Opening stores in suburbs like Pinner is all of a piece with consumers’ preferences shifting either to the regional mega-centre, or to the local parade, leaving mid-sized Camberleys stuck in the middle, neither one thing nor another.

WH Smith has always been a vigorously commercial company – a tradition underlined by their creation and dominance of the railway bookstall market in the 19th century, or the opening of 150 high street shops in the last three months of 1905.  (“Shopfitting [Estate] Department established”, says WHS’s own history web-page, laconically.)  For much of its history, thanks to the establishment status of “the ruler of the Queen’s Navee” and the later arts and crafts interests of St John Hornby, WHS was committed to creating well-designed stores with paternalistic employment practices and a patrician belief in itself.  All of this is now long gone, but so is much of the book and news trade on which WHS subsisted for so long.

Today, vigorous – indeed, ruthless – commercialism is WHS’s byword, and they are as well placed as any to survive the digital bookocalypse.  Strategically, a small high street presence may also be an important insurance policy against the impact of eBooks on the airport and railway trade – expect to see a lot more Kindles by the pools this summer.

Picture: “Lancastrian” on Flickr