Swann Song: Changes at WH Smith

The Bookseller has published a column I’ve written in response to WH Smith’s prelims announcement last week, which delivered the double whammy of £100m+ profits, and the upcoming departure of Kate Swann as Group CEO.  I’ve reproduced it below.

When the WHS announcement was made last week, two sets of instinctive responses crashed into each other.  The City reporters raised the roof for Queen Kate, during whose reign earnings-per-share have been driven to ever higher peaks, thanks to a combination of margin enhancement, cost-cutting and share buybacks.  And the naysayers pointed out that, yet again, sales were down – even in the go-go Travel division, like-for-likes keep falling.  Oh, and BTW, the store environment is pretty poor.

I try to take a slightly more nuanced (or reflective) view.  Swann has delivered extraordinary numbers through torrid times, but has she left her heir apparent, Steve Clarke (who is promising more of the same), with a sustainable model?

WH Smith has made every decision with its shareholders’ interests paramount – and that’s as it should be, am I right?  However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that those decisions have been predicated on short-to-medium term returns, rather than the sort of long-term investment that leading retailers make.  WHS is still a bricks-and-mortar company (notwithstanding a long-standing but rarely promoted transactional site, and the slightly more forward-looking Funky Pigeon online offer), trading in categories –  printed books, newspapers and magazines – that are in long-term decline.  Its overseas Travel expansion plans are broad-based – but winners need to be idenified from a pot-pourri of investments across several continents.

Retail Week has just dropped through the door, complete with a profile of Steve Clarke.  In the meantime, here’s The Bookseller piece:

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Relay race

Cannon Street Station is a National Rail terminus in the City of London, bringing commuters into the financial district from south-east London and Kent via London Bridge.  It’s busy for an hour or two each morning and evening, but outside of these times, and at weekends, it’s dead.  In 2010/11, it served 21m passengers, which sounds like a lot, but compared to Liverpool Street (56m), let alone Waterloo (92m) it isn’t a big number – around 40,000 people each rush hour.

It’s recently been redeveloped, with plenty of handsome new office accommodation on top, but this somehow served only to emphasise how empty everything underneath was, when I visited at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.

Compared to other mainline stations, the retail offer is negligible, but interesting.  Cannon Street is home to the first Relay convenience store in a UK railway station.  It’s owned by LS Travel Retail, part of the Lagardère Group, which is a huge presence in travel retail in mainland Europe, Asia and America, but has only arrived in the UK this year with the Relay CTN and Watermark bookshop brands; they also operate Lonely Planet’s Manchester Airport store, and have multiple specialist fascias in their portfolio.

Relay is a brand consumers will have seen in dozens of European airports, so it looks familiar, but out of place.  The store is small (pretty tight, in fact) and neat, with the right ranges of newspapers, magazines, on-the-go food, confectionery and cigarettes, and small selections of grocery staples and books.  There’s nothing remarkable about the offer, but the shopfit is bright and inviting, the staff friendly, and everything is clean and well-ordered.

The tube network has many independent CTN offers, but mainline stations tend to be the province of the WH Smith Travel division.  It’s interesting that Relay secured this site instead of WHS…

…but not half as interesting as taking note of what WH Smith has done instead.

Smack-bang opposite the station entrance, on the north side of Cannon Street, there’s this:

Not the prettiest thing you ever saw, but take note: it’s clearly bigger than Relay, and it boasts two supporting brands in Funky Pigeon, WHS’s wholly-owned cards and gifts business, and Costa Coffee.  That coffee offer alone should be enough to get commuters across the road from the station – even though Costa Express means that you get self-service machines, rather than a smiling barista:

Plenty of room for customers too.  The store has a rear-facing dogleg, which permits a sizeable Funky Pigeon range, in addition to WHS’s regular Travel fare:

The timber floor, clean lines and bright environment all create a very inviting environment.  They also put one in mind of an old song:

There is no doubt that competition causes incumbents to up their game, and that’s certainly the case with WH Smith in Cannon Street.  Over to LS Travel Retail for the next leg of the Relay race…

Cannon Street image: e-architect.co.uk 


Good Luck cards

Clinton’s new Chief Executive Dominique Schurman has spoken to Retail Week about her plans for the brand, following her appointment by new owners Lakeshore Lending, a subsidiary of Clinton’s largest creditor and supplier American Greetings.

Schurman has enjoyed a thirty year career in card and gift retail in the US, where she will continue to serve as CEO of Schurman Retail Group, which is part-owned by American Greetings, and comprises the Papyrus, Carlton and American Greetings shopfronts and online sites.

Adding 397 well-worn UK stores to this mix is a tall order, and Retail Week concentrates on three elements of her short-term strategy thus:

1. Renegotiate lease terms out of administration.  With retail chains falling like flies, landlords will be interested in reducing rents to secure tenancies, particularly in the sort of secondary mall locations that Clintons has historically filled – locations that are less attractive to fashion users.

2. Refurbish the stores.  The extent to which Clintons had allowed its estate to go to seed looks like a long-term death wish – either that, or simple disdain for customers and competitors.  The design of the typical Clintons store – inside and outside – has moved on very little since the 1980s, as the business became captive to its own heritage.  And maintenance has been poor: carpets are tatty, and fixtures and lighting well-worn and out-of-date, creating an ambience of “downmarket without the value-add”.  It is hard to see how you just freshen up these stores – they will need to be gutted and started again.

Schurman has indicated that she will drop the chain’s signature orange.  I’d think hard about the name, too; “Clinton Cards” has had out-dated connotations for a long time, and though it never quite shot itself in the foot (cf Gerald Ratner), it’s become a brand for which there is little consumer loyalty.  The store and online offer is going to have to be completely reinvented – why keep the old name, when you could do a Next-out-of-Hepworths, or River-Island-out-of-Chelsea-Girl, and properly reposition your business.

3.  Improve the product mix.  Clintons is another middle-market retailer that has fallen between the two stools of value (personified by Card Factory) and designer/quality (think Paperchase or Scribbler).

This is likely to mean a broader spread of gifts.  What does Schurman sell in her US businesses?

In addition to cards and stationery, upmarket brand Papyrus offers photo frames and albums, bags and purses, soaps, books and bookmarks, candles and diffusers, mugs, glasses and tableware, entertainment products, jewellery, scarves, journals, toys, games, plush and much more; Schurmann’s other brands provide mid-market ranges of similar products.

The US has a greater appetite for printed invitations and formal partyware than the more casual Brits, and this is reflected in the offer.  It also memorialises public holidays to a greater extent.  We do birthdays, Christmas, the spring seasons (Valentines, Mothers, Easter, Fathers), and a few personal milestones.  We don’t send a lot of cards celebrating Halloween or New Year, we’re disdainful of industry-created opportunities like Bosses’ Day, and – for instance – we express our patriotism rather differently to the US (did you receive any Diamond Jubilee cards?).  There’s no market for UK versions of the 4th July selection at American Greetings’ website, however keenly we support Help for Heroes.

Of course, it’s too easy to point up how we’re divided by a common language etc etc, but Schurman’s team will need to quickly recognise how different our attitude towards each other can be, and how this affects our preferences in cards and gifts.

All of the above will cost a lot of money, and a reinvention of this sort cannot be delivered overnight – American Greetings will have to run fast to deliver store prototypes and revised ranges for next Christmas.  And Schurman will of course have to address Clinton’s unexciting online offer, out-manoeuvred by Moonpig and prey to WH Smith’s new Funky Pigeon brand.

As a manufacturer and supplier, as well as retailer, AG will have to manager its supplier relationships with the supermarket chains, who are muttering about boycotting AG’s cards.  It would be counter-productive to save Clintons (at significant short-term cost) in order to lose long-term supermarket business.

Similarly, Clintons has important retailer relationships with AG’s direct competitors, like Hallmark.  Much triangulation will be required…

So, what’s the endgame? – a long-term presence as a retail owner in the UK, or a turnaround and exit in the course of the next five years?  While it’s good news that nearly 400 stores (and the jobs that go with them) have been saved, can profitability be grown at all of those locations?  And if you were setting out to build a 400 store chain, how many of these locations are the ones you’d choose?  This is not a quick-fix business.

Image: shirescentre.co.uk


Christmas trading 2011: results table – Wednesday (and final?) update

25th January 2012

WH Smith traditionally brings the Christmas results season to a close, and here they are, down 6% in the high streets and 3% at their Travel division.  Although this was accompanied by the usual statements about the entertainment categories (CD, DVD, now an infinitesimal part of Smith’s mix), and “resilience”, “challenge” and “cost controls” all made their usual appearances, there was little indicating retail progress.  Strong categories?  Kobo and online?  Former British Bookshops stores?  You can manage a business for cash for so long (and it’s been so long that it’s remarkable), but at some point you have to sell more product, to more customers, more often.  That’s what we want to hear from WHS, and it’s what’s missing again.

19th January 2012

I’ve been on the road for the past couple of days, and quite a few gaps in the table have been filled during that time.  Strong sales from Primark and Matalan indicate that there’s still a desire for value when it’s done well.  Of course, you might say the same about Peacocks, which by all accounts remained operationally profitable, but has been crippled by debt and forced into administration, threatening the biggest one-off loss of retail jobs since Woolworths in 2008.

The Centre for Retail Research in Nottingham has published a sobering schedule, detailing retail failures from 2010-2012.   They state that, over the five years 2007-2011, 173 retail businesses folded, comprising a breathtaking 18,342 stores, and over 150,000 jobs.  Questions please to the CRR –here’s the link.

Back to Christmas 2011, and at the other end of the fashion scale, Burberry and Mulberry have announced excellent growth, but it’s been unclear whether the numbers have referred specifically to UK retail, so I’ve omitted them.

No such qualms with not-retailers-at-all Greene King and JD Wetherspoon.  Looks as though we still have money to spend on a night at the pub!  And animals had a good Christmas, even if their owners cut back, with Pets at Home up 4.9%.

I posted a like-for-like book sales for Oxfam last week, and this has been followed by a flurry of other figures, reported in the Guardian.

Biggest news from the mid-week period has been from the electricals retailers, with Dixons (Currys/PCWorld) hailing -7.0% as a relative success, and Comet’s  -14.5% a reflection of the grim condition of a business struggling through a sale process, and pretty much disowned by Kesa.

However, I think there are good things to be said about Dixons, but they need a separate blog – watch this space…

16th January 2012

Just three additions today – Boots and The Perfume Shop, both looking good; and the McArthurGlen outlet centres, which appear to have had an exceptional season.  It’s worth bearing in mind that Christmas historically has peaked early at outlet “villages” like Swindon and Cheshire Oaks – outlet customers search out the best bargains early, and then complete their shopping in traditional malls and high streets – from memory, the final weekend in November was typically the best in the run-up to Christmas.

Who are we still waiting for?  Of those who made Christmas trading announcements last year: Electricals – Currys/PCWorld and Comet; books/media – WH Smith and Waterstones (though the latter is now privately owned, so is under no shareholder pressure to announce); fashion: Primark, Matalan; DIY: B&Q (though Christmas is hardly a prime season for them, it’d be good to benchmark their performance against Homebase and GCG).

Who would we like to hear from?  Big, successful private businesses like Arcadia and River Island; PE-owned growers like Pets at Home and Hobbycraft; discount grocers like Aldi and Lidl, and bargain retailers like Poundland; niche successes like Jack Wills and Cath Kidston; mega-brands like Selfridges…  It’s a long list, and any analysis of published numbers is inevitably just a snapshot of a sector which is far less plc-dominated than in the past.

13th January 2012

A quick final update before the weekend is upon us.  Has Tesco had enough press coverage?  As Twitter noted last night during News at Ten, you’d think they’d called in the administrators…  Still, Philip Clarke has been very candid about the challenges Tesco faces, and has been reminded (as The Times editorial today emphasises) that no company stays at the top forever.  I’m thinking hard about Tesco Extras, and a separate blog might follow…

Nils Pratley on The Trouble at Tesco

Harry Wallop on Is This the End of Tesco Dominance? (QTWTAIN)

Meanwhile…  Good numbers from Original Factory Shop, The Entertainer and Superdrug, but another tough season for Theo Fennell.  Nul points to Asda and Ted Baker for announcing total growth for Christmas, but not like-for-likes.  Of course, I appreciate they don’t have to announce anything at all, but if I had shares in Wal-Mart, I’d want to know what was what.

12th January 2012

After a positive start to the week, things have turned ugly with poor results from Tesco spooking the markets, and throwing fresh doubt over the sector.

As you can see from the table above, Tesco has performed significantly worse than other supermarkets (and M&S food, which has been broken out separately in reporting, and which saw a like-for-like increase of 3%).

House of Fraser has posted some remarkably good numbers, but it isn’t clear whether they’re inc or ex-VAT.  For the record, I’m a committed ex-VAT person – including a variable rate of tax in your sales is no way to accurately reflect like-for-like shopper behaviour.

(At Borders, 75%-80% of our sales were VAT-free – books, newspapers and magazines – and the remainder was VATted – stationery, CDs, DVDs, toys etc.  We also paid a “special rate” of VAT, where eg a CD-ROM was attached to a book on computing or language learning, which reflected the fact that part of the whole product was zero-rated.  I’d like to think that the HMRC officers required to create and police these rules, and audit the proceeds, cost rather more than the total tax take.)

Anyway, back to Christmas 2011, and as expected, times were tough at the likes of Halfords, Thorntons and Mothercare.  Argos had a particularly grim set of results – for how long will 750 stores be sustainable?

Some more variances to reporting periods, highlighted in green.  These were the reporting periods twelve months ago:

  • Tesco LY: 6 weeks to 8th January
  • JD Sports: 5 weeks to 1st January
  • New Look: 15 weeks to 8th January
  • House of Fraser: 5 weeks to 8th January

FTSE 100 retailers are now shown in bold.

10th January 2012

Plenty of results added to today’s table, including a couple of outriders that you may not have seen reported elsewhere!

Game takes over at the unhappy end of the chart; their LY numbers are highlighted because of a change in reporting period – for 2010, they reported five weeks to 8th January, this time around, an additional three weeks pre-Christmas were included.  The Co-op also made a change – the prior year numbers relate to a 13 week period, October – December.

There’s some inc-VAT (Debenhams) and ex-VAT (Majestic) differentiation, which given the rate jump from 17.5% to 20% has a bearing on different companies’ numbers.  And of course, these are just sales – not profits.  The rumbling undercurrent – “of course, their margins will have taken a hit” – accompanies many of these announcements.

Nevertheless, it’s great to see many more pluses than minuses on the schedule – long may it continue…

9th January 2012

And they’re off.

It looks as though this year, every media source and his dog is going to be publishing regular updates on Christmas trading, so I’ll keep this brief, and update it as required.

I’ve included last year’s numbers, where I have them – and as this is a busy office, I haven’t dug out LYs where I previously didn’t have them – I’ll try and infill if Edwin Drood becomes unwatchable.

Worth noting that, where comparisons exist, the order of companies is exactly the same as last year.  (The reporting periods are all similar, so these are good comparisons.)

It’s worth remembering that bad results always take longer to calculate than good ones…

And for the many hundreds of you who enjoyed my “8o towns” blog from last week, I’ve shown store numbers.  Counting stores is always an inexact art, but most of the chains are on multiples of eighty.  Some will stay that way – supermarkets, Next.  But there’s restructuring in the air.

Just to keep us all honest, this article from the Telegraph highlights some of the more imaginative ways that Christmas performance can be characterised.

And, lest we forget, the following chains probably won’t be providing Christmas trading updates:

Barratts Priceless, Blacks, D2 Jeans, Hawkins Bazaar/Tobar, La Senza, and Past Times.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls, but let’s hope stores can be rescued, and jobs maintained.


Back to the FutureBook: a retailer’s view

A scintillating day yesterday at the FutureBook Conference at the QEII Conference Centre in the heart of Westminster.

2011 has been the Year of Change, with digital content and eReading becoming established across the sector, thanks to the explosive success of the Kindle and (to a lesser extent) the iPad.  The potential of smarter and more versatile devices, allied to social networking in the very broadest sense, has got people like Stephen Page rethinking the whole publishing paradigm – and it was great to see experienced but independent leading publishers like Page, Rebecca Smart and Kate Wilson being recognised for picking up the old business models and giving them a damned good shake.  It was also refreshing to see more young and/or independent delegates, who will reshape the face of publishing over the next 5-10 years.

Takeaway stats:

Dominique Raccah, CEO of Chicago-based Sourcebooks, kicked off:

Ereader users believe they are purchasing more titles.  The evidence suggests, yes; but the industry still lacks a reliable eBook “chart” in the UK and the US, and Amazon/Apple are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to sharing their data.

Ereader users believe their overall spend on books has risen.  As overall spend (eBooks + pBooks) has fallen, this is hard to prove.

Ereader users believe they’re reading more.  Again, ths is unproven, though there may be a link to “dual screen” use, whereby the user browses a device (most typically, an iPAd) at the same time as they’re watching TV.

A snapshot of the Top 85 Kindle charts in the US: 66% of titles were published by “traditional” publishers; 18% were self-published; and 16% came from “non-traditional” (ie digital) publishers.  nb for the traditionalists, this compares to about 95% (my guess!) trad publishers in the average print bookshop.

Evan Schnittman of Bloomsbury divided the audience with his “hardcover + eBook” proposal (he’d charge a 25% premium for the bundle, which presumably would include a VAT element).  Personally, I’m gung-ho for this idea, particularly as Evan reminded us of the difference between “books” (objects that deliver permanence and permit display), and “reading” (which is all about content).

I sometimes chuckle at the “convenience” argument around eBooks.  Is it really a whole lot more convenient to carry an eReader than a single book?  (Do you remember, in the dim, dark days before Kindle, when you used to say “I’d love to read more, but carrying a book is so inconvenient“?)  It’s the enhanced convenience of carrying lots of books, and being able to purchase when you wish.  These are great qualities, though perhaps they encourage the grasshopper mentality of the dual-screener?  (Research suggests that 26% of Kindle users do this.)

Meanwhile, while the take-off trajectory of eReaders has been, and will continue to be, spectacular; though bear in mind that 76% of book-buyers have yet to buy any kind of eBook and – according to BML research – over 50% of those aged 35 or over don’t at present intend to do so.

Finally – I think this was an AT Kearney stat – European eBook sales currently break down as follows:  52% of all eBook purchases take place in the UK.  Germany – where Thalia’s Oyo is making the running – delivers 28%.  After that, France is at 7%, Italy 3%, and the rest of the continent 10%.

This brief run-down of stats doesn’t give the reader any real flavour of the optimism, enthusiasm and boundary-breaking that characterised great ideas and discussion from William Higham, Valla Vakili, Charlie Redmayne, John Mitchinson and many, many more.  But we need to press on…

OK, let’s talk about bookshops

It fell to me to wave my accustomed bucket of cold water around the Fleming Room, and to remind the Conference that this once-in-300-years reshaping of the industry is taking place during the worst consumer downturn, and the worst set of economic forecasts, for many, many years.  New devices, formats and ideas are being launched into the teeth of last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, which promised austerity beyond the next election, and a return to 2001 living standards in – 2017?  2020?  Providing the Euro doesn’t implode, of course – then things will be much worse.

So, book people need to be thinking not just about how to reshape their industry in such a way as to preserve copyright, encourage new talent and stop Our Friends in Seattle (or, more broadly, the “GAFA” group*) from dominating commerce and innovation; they need to embed that change at the same time as Joe Public is devoting his dwindling income to candles and tinned food.

I was chairing a discussion panel that brought together Kobo vendor relations manager Cameron Drew, Hive development manager Julie Howkins, Middle East bookseller/publisher Jeremy Brinton, Retail Week Knowledge Bank director Robert Clark, and Leo Burnett marketing strategist Dr Alan Treadgold.  Here are some of our key points:

The UK pBook market has consoidated to one specialist (Waterstone’s), one generalist (WH Smith) and one website, which between them meet most of the needs of committed book-buyers.  (Of course, there are also three participating supermarket chains, though they aren’t specialist by any definition.)  This represents a real narrowing of the market – but perhaps that market will now start to broaden again, driven by feisty and more self-confident indies, the arrival of eReader alternatives to the Kindle (specifically Kobo), and an expanding reach (devices, channels, formats) from the Stephen Page-defined world of broad publishing.

However, no one has yet resolved the “showroom” conundrum: once its sales have fallen by around 20%, a physical bookshop becomes untenable, and has to close.  Bookshops can move to cheaper premises, can sell a broader range of products (toys, coffee etc), but unless they are actively participating in eBook sales, their market share will be eroded beyond recovery.  This will leave those 50% aged 35+ who don’t intend to buy an eReader for Amazon to scoop up into their search-excellent, browse-lousy world.

The panel recommended some solutions to this problem:

Ereader manufacturers that partner with retailers can encourage consumers into a bookshop relationship without committing them to a non-transferable, Amazon-type scenario.  Hive-affiliated bookshops (currently about one-third of serious indies?) can sell eBooks in multiple formats, and share in the revenue they generate, as well as creating local incentives for their customers.  And Kobo’s retailer partnership model (WHS, Fnac, Indigo etc) clearly has legs.

Physical bookshops must use their websites to drive store footfall.  One of the UK’s most consistently successful retailers, Richer Sounds, has a strong eCommerce site, which nevertheless acts primarily as a driver to get customers into personality-saturated stores, where they can test the product and take advice from trained staff.  There’s a bookshop model here.

Click-and-Collect is growing swiftly as a preferred distribution channel for many customers.  26% of Argos’s business is Click & Collect, and M&S, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s are among the retailers investing heavily in this service.  Click & Collect allows the customer to pick up their goods at a time convenient to them – and of course exposes them to personal service, and many more buying opportunities.

Social networking through eReaders (Kobo Vox) can bring reading communities together, and could be curated by bookshops who currently support reading groups.  Events and literary festivals not only bring together readers with shared interests, but underline a bookshop’s specialisms.  (And deliver healthy book sales to boot.)  In short, community runs through good bookselling like the words in a stick of rock, and good staff matter more in bookselling than perhaps any other retail sector.

Everyone in the world of books – publishers, authors, retailers, analysts – needs to be focusing more on their end customer: the person who buys the book.  Historically (ie until a few months ago) publishers tended to view retailers as their customers, with (as John Makinson has noted) a B2B mindset at odds with the creation, marketing and selling of consumer products.  Book trade people need to be aware of retailing best practice, and to understand how consumers and retailers are behaving in sectors far away from their own.  We cannot integrate ourselves into 21st century lives while still behaving at one remove from our readers.

Finally, there is a common retail trend running through all sectors – fashion, homewares, electrical etc – and that’s a trend for fewer, better shops.  We certainly have fewer bookshops than we had five years ago, and it seems likely that the number will continue to fall.  Those that are left must be digitally integrated, and committed to a programme of continual improvement.

*GAFA:  Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon.  Each is developing a vertically integrated suite of services and functions, as follows:

  • Storage
  • Device
  • Purchase
  • Payment
  • Social

The walls around each of their gardens vary in height.


WH Smith – how does it keep on squeezing those margins?

I mentioned WH Smith’s continued walk-on-water results in my last post, with sales down and operating margins up, and I’ve started to worry that I might be obsessing about a single brand.  However, on reflection, this is understandable – Smiths is the only retailer in the book sector whose current performance is visible to the public.  Waterstone’s is now privately held, so it’ll join Foyle’s with Companies House filings only published many months after they cease to be relevant.  And Amazon of course never breaks out UK performance, and reveals no more than it chooses to through its Luxembourg base.

We all know that WHS is no longer the serene multi-layered-management arm of the Imperial Civil Service that it once felt like.  We can only speculate as to its market share in the critical Toblerone sub-sector.  And as a well-known retail guru and government advisor observes on Twitter this morning:

Mary Portas

@maryportas I truly hate WHSmith. Used to be a loved British biz & now a dump. Rush hour, 7.45am at Euston. One person on till. Queues. And shitty promos

But, spitting feathers aside, and noting obvious savings in staff costs, shop-fit etc, where is WHS’s continual margin gain coming from?  With twenty minutes to kill in their new store at Westfield Stratford yesterday, I went strategy spotting.

One of the best ways to drive margin is through own-brand, and WHS continues to extend own-brand and unique stock throughout all its categories.  WHS has always carried a sizeable slug of own-brand stationery and the like, but many of its categories are now dominated by own-brand to an unprecedented degree.  Take calendars.  There are multiple suppliers of wall calendars in the market.  Some of them own valuable IP – eg Top Gear, The Simpsons – but a large proportion of the market is generic – kittens, landscapes etc.  And WHS (at least in Westfield) no longer stocks generic calendars that aren’t own-brand.  The opportunities to increase margin are significant.

Value publishing – creating attractive books to be sold at a lower-than-expected price – has been a staple of store chains like The Works for many years.  It served us well at Borders, and WHS has always had a toe in the water, but its commitment to value publishing is now more substantial, and takes many forms.  Value titles are no longer separated out, highlighted as “second-class” goods – they’re integrated into the main offer.

WHS is proving particularly adept at providing alternatives to current trends/titles – eg baking books to accompany the Great British Bake Off.  This can be yours for a fiver:

Placed strategically close to the Guinness World Records dumpbin is a selection of similar facts’n’entertainment titles like “You Won’t Believe It But…”, “Gruesome Facts”, “Planet Earth” and so on.  These are retailing for £5, half the price of Guinness (which in turn is nominally 50% off its £20 RRP, though I defy you to find any chain merchant selling it for over a tenner).  WHS offers a cheap alternative to Guinness which isn’t as time-sensitive, and will earn a higher cash margin per unit sold than Guinness.  Win-win.

Now, here’s an interesting offer – any two for £10 on over forty best-selling hardbacks.

That’s a great deal in today’s market, but it’s also a clever deal, recognising that WHS’s average customer isn’t a Bookseller subscriber or regular attendee at the London Book Fair.  These are, for the most part, last year’s books (long available in paperback), or they’re illustrated publishing of the sort that The Book People specialise in – big print-runs on reliable topics, sold into specific outlets at low-low prices.  Describing these books as “best-selling” is accurate – they certainly have been best-selling in their time, and with offers like these, perhaps Ant & Dec will sell better second time around…

Here’s another way to get mileage out of old books.  On the new books table at the front of store, two hot biographies of major cultural figures, both best-sellers, but Keith Richards was published 12 months before Dickens/Tomalin:

The River Cottage Veg book is new, and appears to be selling at full price – though keeping up with stickering is hard work in this environment.  (The Cheryl Cole at bottom right was published in September 2010, and is on a not-wholly-attractive “2 for £10 or £4.74 each” offer, if I’m reading that sticker right.)

The Keith Richards was a huge success last year, and representing it for Christmas 2011 works for everyone.  At 70% off, it’s retailing for £6 – somewhat higher than a traditional remainder seller would price it, but excellent value nevertheless.

Elsewhere, WHS has bought heavily into what is essentially “Jamie Oliver’s Greatest Hits”, a collection featuring previously published recipes from all over Europe, priced to sell at £9.99.  This is more heavily featured, and more cheaply priced than this season’s new Jamie – and as a recipe selection, it may well be more attractive to many customers.  Given WHS’s stock commitment, a better cash margin also looks likely.

*     *     *     *     *

These are just a few examples, culled from a brief stroll around one store, but they underline WH Smith’s absolute commitment to creating a consumer offer that will drive the strongest possible margin.  Lest this sounds merely blindingly obvious to any general retailer, this isn’t how a traditional bookshop works – stock selection is driven by frontlist publishing, and by the creation and maintenance of a diverse and credible backlist range.  The bookseller will haggle with the publisher for margin and payment terms, marketing support etc, but their commitment to the “right” titles will limit their ability to grow margin.

What WH Smith has done is to free itself from the old dependence that retailers of copyright products (books, news/mags, music, movies, games etc) have on producers, by analysing what its customers want to buy, turning the screws on suppliers in exchange for exclusive deals and big buys, and generating large volumes of unique and own-brand stock across all categories, from bookazines to giftwrap.

I still share the general bogglement at Smiths’ ability to keep pulling off this trick, again and again – last month, Kate Swann announced that a further £11m-worth of savings had been identified across the business.  And I wholly understand the dismay that Mary Portas and many others have in the current WH Smith store environment – these are no longer pleasant stores.  (Younger readers, when I were a boy, WHS and John Lewis felt very similar to each other…)  But WHS now has a much greater level of control over what they stock and sell.  How all of this will fare if digital content takes over 50% of the book market (and the magazine market?) is hard to say, but as a survival strategy this looks more robust (if less attractive) than that of the old “stockholding bookshop”.


Christmas: far too early to call

Not a great deal of action on the Front of Store blog in the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been out on the road a lot, assessing stores, formats and catchments.  Plenty of news in the retail sector, though, with the end of the Best Buy brand in the UK, and the sale of Comet for £2 (with a £50m dowry); as the Observer comments on the electricals sector this morning:

Amazon’s small overheads and Tesco’s huge scale have enabled cheaper products to eat away at the specialists’ profits. So far they have resisted the fate of the book and record stores swept off the high street by online rivals. Could the worsening economy now push yet another retail category into the virtual universe?

It has been a difficult autumn across most retail categories, with the continued mild weather slowing down sales of winter fashion and precipitating a series of one-day events at the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams.  Recent results at Next and Marks & Spencer both illustrated how challenging the middle market is, even for the best-run businesses, and WH Smith unveiled lower sales and higher profits for the nth successive quarter – Nils Pratley has commented astutely on this.  (Nationally, book sales are poor, running 12% down on 2010 last week.)

There are just 41 shopping days left until Christmas, and though the streets of Staines were busy yesterday afternoon, there’s still a lot more window shopping than actual commerce taking place.  Consumers are well-versed on tough Christmases now, and the question is not “will prices fall?” so much as “how early will the sales start?”.  There’s already plenty of red-and-white in the windows, as hard-pressed retailers seek to liquidate stock and free up cash.

London’s West End tourist boom continues, with Crown Estates announcing that there will be fewer, larger stores in Regent Street in the future; Westfield Stratford has welcomed millions of customers (I’ll be back there on Tuesday) and has indicated that the old Whitgift Centre in Croydon could be next for the Westfield treatment.  But London has never been as disassociated from the rest of the country, in retail terms, as it is now.

It’s going to be a difficult Christmas, with every sale a small victory against consumers’ tight purses and low levels of “feel-good” (despite that “Capracorn” John Lewis ad).  Online will grow, device sales will soar (Best Buy may be dead, but Wireless World is Carphone’s focus now) and new retail formats will emerge on the shoulders of the old.

On a lighter note, here are a couple of stores positioning themselves for the future of the book trade: