High street retailers are making themselves obsolete

I was disappointed to read last week that WH Smith has been once again voted the UK’s worst high street retailer by Which? magazine.

The Secret Marketer

I grew up with the two high street stalwarts Woolworths and WH Smith, and during my school lunch break we would rush to one of them to meet friends, listen to the countdown of the Top 40, buy sweets, or the latest football sticker cards. None of these resulted in huge commercial business for either store but from a marketing perspective it was a great brand investment, as we grew up to be customers of the future.

So it is especially sad to find that Woolworths has left the high street, HMV has only a handful of stores left, and WH Smith may not be far behind. The problem in each case is that none of these brands managed to respond to the internet in a telling way. As the internet brought economies of scale, it became essential for retailers to justify some form of value-add. The reality was a desire to cut costs to compete, resulting in employees who could hardly claim to be experts, and store designs that were quickly out of touch. And as carrier companies offered faster and more reliable delivery services, the downsides of online all but disappeared. And there are other incentives to take your custom online.

This week I received a ‘reward’ from Charles Tyrwhitt – £10 off any shirt, but online it carried a £4.95 delivery charge. So I went to the store, only to find that the cheaper online shirts were not available, and a comparable product was £10 more expensive – meaning I would be £5 better off buying online. I understand that serving customers from a big, functional warehouse is cheaper, but where’s the incentive for me to purchase in-store next time, unless I need a new shirt straight away. Online offers vast choice and, on the basis of my experience, a cheaper deal too.

Whatever you purchase, the decision appears to be to choose between a vast range, with a delay in experiencing the purchase, versus immediate gratification, but only if what you want is in store.

I really hope WH Smith finds a reason for existing, but as it currently stands, I don’t see what that is.

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