Assessing the WH Smith Brand

Each week in association with retail and marketing consultancy Pragma, looks at a high-profile UK brand, assessing its performance against a range of criteria and offering suggestions to improve its overall score. Marks for each section are given out of five stars, while the overall rating is given at the end of the review.

Brand ***

WH Smith seems to have weathered the storm it faced a few years ago, but in the long term a question mark hangs over the chain – would you start up WH Smith today? Probably not. It lacks a clear purpose and its ability to appeal to younger customers remains weak. Its track record of innovation is unimpressive: it has under-exploited electronic games and has been slow to offer ‘lifestyle’ stationery. It’s certainly convenient (500-plus UK stores), enduring (its first store opened in 1792), and respectable. ‘Popping in to Smiths’ is a habit ingrained in British shopping behaviour. The brand has huge awareness but little personality. It is merely average at many things. If WH Smith wasn’t there tomorrow, how much would it really be missed?

Experience ***

In travel destinations shops are smart, clearly laid out with a speedy check-out most of the time. The travel shops have a clear purpose and customers are grateful for their presence, as little other choice is often available. Many of the high-street stores are also clean and tidy, but some remain in need of a revamp. The magazine section is often crowded with rows of men browsing over pictures of iMacs, Ferraris and young women. The layout is unimaginative, with everything in rows. Fortunately, friendly, chatty check-out staff lift the atmosphere even if they are pushing you into buying half-price chocolate.

Product **

The more focused the store format, the better. So in airports/stations it’s great – a simple proposition, effectively executed. Across all stores, books and magazines are strengths. But in high-street shops other ranges lack variety and originality, and the question remains, what can I buy here that I can’t buy somewhere else?

Value Positioning ***

WH Smith has made a concerted effort in the last two years to offer more value for money, discounting books, DVDs and confectionery. The fact remains that online the books and DVDs are cheaper but it is reducing the price differential, and compared to other stores (e.g. HMV, Virgin Megastores) it is competitive.

Location ****

WH Smith’s heritage means it has stores on most high streets and in travel destinations. Its coverage is second to none. It faces not only competition from the likes of Paperchase, HMV and Waterstone’s, but increasingly online operators like Amazon, which enable the shopper to bypass having to go to WH Smith at all.


– Find more ‘special’ and ‘unique’ offers: create reasons to visit the store
– Let non-customers know about product innovations
– Make more of being an information supplier in an information age: promote the digital information on sale (e.g. CD-Roms, DVDs, software, educational information)
– Accelerate innovation (ranges, store formats, even brands?) to draw in the next generation of shoppers.

Overall: ***


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