Authors have waded in to defend W H Smith after the retailer was named the worst shop on the UK high street yesterday (28th May).
A Which? survey of more than 10,000 consumers saw the chain voted worst retailer on the UK High Street based on customer responses about experiences of buying items other than groceries, their level of satisfaction and the likelihood of recommending each shop. According to the survey, customers complained W H Smith stores were out-of-date, products were expensive and staff were rude.
Some commenters said the retailer was a "chocolate shop pretending to be a stationery shop", and that it has had a "jumble sale" feel, with "awful" point of sale, cluttered till areas and "dated-looking" aisles, although a W H Smith spokesperson said only 184 of respondents had commented on its stores in the survey.
"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," the spokesperson said.
Authors including Joanne Harris, as well as former CILIP president Dawn Finch, have argued that some of the criticism levelled at the shop reflected the “snobbery” around book buying.
Writing on Twitter, Harris said: “While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that W H Smith, and not Waterstones, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.
"This may be a good time to remind people getting sniffy about W H Smith that 3 in 10 children in this country do not own a single book, and that 1 in 10 adults is functionally illiterate."
Finch said: “I'm reading a lot of snobby comments about how people should use 'real' bookshops. I'm assuming they mean independent bookshops? Well woop-de-do if you live in an area lucky enough to have one. Don't knock where people get their reading material, that's just entitled.”
Meanwhile author Holly Seddon said: "I always loved @WHSmiths as a child and having my books stocked there and being so supported by them/WHSmith Travel as an author has meant the world to me. The snobbery dribbling out on Twitter today is grimly revealing. In many towns, it's the only place left to buy books. And with libraries suffering terrible cuts, it's really not for privileged hand-wringing folk with access to wider options to point and sneer because people also buy BOGOF chocolate there. Ugh.”
Book blogger Naomi Frisby echoed a similar sentiment. “The snobbery in the [response] to this. There was only a W H Smith in the working class town I grew up in. I still sometimes buy books in W H Smith,” she said.
Publisher and former Waterstones head of buying, Scott Pack added that research Waterstones did into book buying when he worked at the chain found that many W H Smith customers found Waterstones, and other "serious" bookshops, intimidating.
"W H Smith does not employ 'booksellers' in their shops so the customers we interviewed felt they were not being judged when buying books there", said Pack. "Now, I know all readers are welcome in Waterstones and indies and elsewhere, but not all readers feel that way."
Meanwhile, Andy Miller, author and co-host of Backlisted podcast, tweeted a footnote regarding W H Smith and the "significant" part it plays in British cultural life, from his book The Year of Reading Dangerously, and Kate Mayfield, author of the Parentations (Oneworld), tweeted a picture admiring the new W H Smith Bookshop at London Bridge station.
Despite the criticism, the retailer is driving sales up at its Travel stores, with its most recent results showing that trading profit up 5% to £41m, while revenue was up 3% on a like-for-like basis, driven by investment and ongoing growth in passenger numbers. This contrasts with sales and profit at the retailer's high street arm, which saw profit falling 6% to £50m, while like-for-like sales were down 4%.
Moves to improve performance at W H Smith's high street arm include the recently launched Price Promise which offers customers money back if they find a cheaper copy at a local rival bookshop. Feedback to the promotion has been "very positive", the retailer has said. The promotion builds on the 225-year-old company’s bid to recover book sales, which have been falling over the past few years. To counteract the decline, earlier this year W H Smith High Street unveiled a new books strategy for its High Street arm, designed to futureproof sales at the 610-strong chain for the next decade. The plan involves refurbishing the larger shops in its High Street portfolio, conducting a review of its range and radically ramping up how it recommends books to customers.
This year’s Which? ranking marks the eighth year in a row that W H Smith has been in the bottom two of the survey.
The shops that were top-rated in the survey included cosmetics chain Lush, discounter Savers and toy chain Smyths Toys. Waterstones was ranked eighth.