Travel time

<p>&quot;A glamour hangs over the glittering booth, and a tantalising air of clever new things.&quot; Selfridges? Abercrombie &amp; Fitch? No&mdash;Henry James describing a W H Smith railway bookstall in 1888. Today, W H Smith Travel is once again the jewel in the corporate crown, consistently reporting 3 to 4% like-for-like sales growth compared with unremitting declines in the high street stores. Operating profit is now equal to 75% of that of the high street, despite sales of just 30% and space less than 10% of the bigger business.</p>
<p>Yet in the 1980s the travel shops were an integral part of the overall retail business, and the poor relation. The railway stores were cold, draughty and downright shabby. The narrow range of A-format paperbacks was an afterthought compared with the main business of selling newspapers and magazines. The managers were company veterans who had been put out to grass. The airport stores were little better, as WHS tried to screw down costs to ease the considerable pressure of the British Airports Authority's hands on its jugular.</p>
<p>So how was it transformed? Clearly travel is a growth market. Security hassles have helped, as &quot;dwell times&quot; have increased sharply. And the 1998 acquisition of John Menzies boosted the travel business much more than its high street sister chain. But the key to the revival of the travel business was its separation from the high street stores 10 years ago. Bill Cockburn, then WHS group chief executive (think Alex Ferguson on steroids), made this change during his two-year slash-and-burn regime.</p>
<p>David McRedmond, a charismatic and ambitious Irishman, was moved across from Waterstone's to run the new division. McRedmond provided the startling insight that people about to undertake a considerable journey might be interested in buying books. Literary fiction, poetry, classics, fiction in translation&mdash;it all went in and, in the main, sold.</p>
<p><img width="200" height="125" align="right" alt="Photo credit: Brian Robert Marshall" src="/documents/UserContributed/Whsmith_hq_swindon(1).jpg" /></p>
<p>However, there was a further factor. Cockburn and McRedmond set up the headquarters of the new travel business in London. The high street business remained in the ghastly green bunker in Swindon (<em>see image right</em>). Now I'm sure Swindon does have some attractions, but if you want young, talented buyers who understand the zeitgeist to work for you, and less committed sales directors than Dallas Manderson and Garry Prior to visit you, London has something of an edge. In his lighter moments, a former W H Smith group finance director used to joke that the best investment the company could make would be to bulldoze the Greenbridge site. At least I think he was joking.</p>
<p><a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Whsmith_hq_swindon.jpg">Photo credit: Brian Robert Marshall</a></p>