As Marketing Week recently noted (MW last week), the British high street is coming to resemble a kind of Jurassic catastrophe, with giant retailers writhing on the ground in what looks like the death agonies of an entire species.
WH Smith, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, all noble beasts that once lorded it over lesser creatures, are bellowing defiance even as wily, smaller competitors equipped with superior speed, agility and intelligence scamper over their huge, scaly bodies.
But this prehistoric metaphor would go no further, were it not for one more disturbing similarity between the fate of the dinosaurs and the demise of the high street leviathans: it was often said that the giant reptiles died out because nature had cast them with a brain-to-weight ratio unequal to their purpose, namely survival. It was even thought that some of these extraordinary creatures had the locus of their intelligence not in their craniums, but in their backsides.
This peculiarity surfaced again – after an interval of some 60 million years – only last week, when WH Smith chief executive Kate Swann announced her strategy for saving the company from extinction. Her plan is two-pronged and, as some analysts were quick to observe, both are blunt.
Firstly, she plans to introduce Costa Coffee shops into WH Smith’s 20 largest stores; secondly, she pins hopes of a revival on the biography of Paul Gascoigne. Admittedly, there are other strands to the grand plan – including an advertising campaign featuring animated characters such as Book Worm and CD Worm, which speaks with a French accent (don’t ask me why) – but coffee and Gazza are the two shock troops that are to be sent rolling over the top and on to the enemy’s front line.
Like any general, Ms Swann does not wish to give too much away, but nevertheless she lets slip that she has a strategic advantage. Though she doesn’t use the term, this key asset might best be described as anonymity. As a customer, you can creep in and out of Smith’s unnoticed.
Many people, says Ms Swann, might feel embarrassed about going into Waterstone’s to buy Paul Gascoigne’s memoirs, but they would feel no such shame about popping into a branch of Smith’s.
This reveals much about the peculiar British psychology, with its blend of fear, anxiety, snobbery and doubt. Wanting to read Paul Gascoigne’s life story is, it seems, a shameful thing, but might only be seen as such in the wrong company. We must assume that Waterstone’s is staffed by clever, rather superior assistants who would raise a sardonic eyebrow if you furtively slipped a copy of Gazza: My Story across the counter. In WH Smith, on the other hand, the staff are ordinary, salt-of-the-earth folk who have long ago accepted human failings as an essential thread in the warp and woof of existence.
Embarrassment has many causes. I would feel uncomfortable buying anything written by Margaret Drabble, for instance, from any outlet, particularly WH Smith, where the assistants, for all their worldly forgiveness, would look askance at such blatant eccentricity. But for real embarrassment, I shall have to wait for the Costa Coffee outlets to be installed. I can picture the scene: having browsed through the newsstand and selected my usual journals, the appeal of some light refreshment and relaxation might, for all my misgivings, prove irresistible. But before I could settle in a quiet corner and leaf through the latest edition of Asian Readers’ Wives, there would be the excruciating process of buying a coffee.
There was a time when to get a cup of coffee all you needed to do was ask for one. It would come either from a pot or a Kenco jug and it would be just about drinkable. But now there’s a menu, a long list of extraordinary things that have been done to the coffee bean in order to make it into something else. The eye runs down the list and the brain panics. There is latte, cappuccino, Americano, café au lait, café mocha, café breve, mocha Valencia and macchiato – and they are only the beginning. And then there are different sizes – tall, grande, venti – ranging from large to extra-large to the sort of thing Cleopatra would bathe in.
I wonder, is Ms Swann planning to install lavatories in WH Smith? If not, why not? For comic animated effect, no character compares with Bursting Bladder Worm.
So, you see, embarrassment, as well as being a class thing, is a generational thing: the person who might feel guilty about Gazza might also be perfectly at home ordering a tankard of Choca Mocha. All in all, Ms Swann would be well-advised to forget about embarrassment as a component of retail psychology. It is far too complicated and personal to lend itself to useful analysis.
She could, however, take a tip from poor, maligned Paul Gascoigne, who recently announced that he is thinking of changing his name to reflect his new image. I have a suggestion: he should adopt the identity of, say, William Henry Smith, a good solid English name that inspires trust; and Smith’s should rebrand itself as Gazza’s, a snappy, where-it’s-at, with-it, swinging moniker: the sort of name that springs readily from the lips of customers bereft of embarrassment.