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Public Relations: Why is W H Smith So Hopeless with the Public?

Few businesses are more in need of a public relations makeover than W H Smith. The once-great brand has thrown its public perception out of the window in its endless pursuit of lower costs and high profit margins.

ublic Relations: How Is W H Smith So Hopeless With The Public?

Public Relations: How Is W H Smith So Hopeless With The Public?

If there is one place you are almost guaranteed poor customer service, it is W H Smith. The staff nearly always appear demoralised, poorly trained and unhelpful. Buying a lottery ticket from a W H Smith assistant can prove such a performance that the store virtually closes around you.

I remember going into the W H Smith branch at London’s Victoria Station and being told by the sole assistant behind the counter downstairs that she was simply not allowed to take my money.

Her role, by strict order of her boss, she said, was to teach me how to use a self-service machine. So, I put down my would-be purchases on the counter and quit the store – to buy the goods elsewhere.

In recent years W H Smith’s approach to its business has been to cut costs and push up prices in a crass act of short-termism.

Whatever the state of its media relations and press office team, public relations in its purest form – its dealings with members of the public – has been arrogantly neglected for a long time.

I am old enough to recall the glorious era, back in the 1970s, when going into a branch of W H Smith was an exciting experience.

There was an interesting range of books, the stores were well decorated and employed helpful, properly trained staff who took pride in their work. . . and there was even a record department.

By comparison, it seems you cannot go into a W H Smith shop without being made to feel a mug.

Vouchers for giant bars of chocolate and fast-food McDonald’s snacks are constantly foisted upon you, sometimes ironically accompanied by Weightwatchers money off vouchers, staff are unkempt and sometimes seen arguing among themselves, and nowhere is there a sense of professionalism or feeling of respect for customers.

The branch I visit most often often seems a shambles. I hate going in there and yet, at that location, it has a monopoly on papers and lottery tickets.

Not long ago, Waterstones boss James Daunt had a go at W H Smith for its “godawful uniformity” and “crushing consistency”.

I have to confess that for a moment I wondered what on earth Waterstones had in common with W H Smith that would make James Daunt comment at all.

Then, in a moment of embarrassment, it occurred to me that both are, on paper at least, book shops.

Much as I love books and reading, I realised that W H Smith is such a poor and low-profile example of a book store that I no longer really consider it to be in the book business.

It is in my mind a magazine and stationery store that also, almost incidentally, stocks some best-selling books which it strives to market in the tackiest-possible fashion.

It has become a convenience store of grim anaemic lighting and jagged shelves that cannot afford new flooring, a one-up-from-the-pound-store that evidently does not value or train its staff. Or invest in a decent interior designer.

It is not surprising, therefore, that its steady decline in high street sales continues, with a four percent dip in like-for-like sales this spring.

The store, which reaches (I hesitate to use the word “celebrates”) its 224th anniversary this year, says it is revamping its high street branches and putting in more post offices. But it could be too little, too late.

My local high street branch in Brighton is not an attractive store. The post office downstairs draws in customers but many, like myself, get out as quickly as possible after transacting their business there.

So here are my Top Five tips to W H Smith on turned around its business:

1. Retrain ALL of your staff to put customers at the heart of everything you do – this will cost a fortune but is clearly needed and will pay dividends in the long run. This includes always giving your customers the option of a human being rather than a machine. Self service is not service in many people’s minds and part of the shopping experience IS human contact, particularly for older customers.

2. Ensure your store managers are leaders of calibre – a lot of retraining will be needed to achieve this, and you may have to move some of them on and pay the good ones more to retain them. But it will be worth it.

3. Start behaving like a book shop. Love books and pick managers who have a love for books, and allow them the autonomy to make their books sections special.

4. Invest in attractive lighting, shelving and flooring – I’ve seen more enticing premises on a funeral director’s.

5. Make your marketing materials less shouty – customers are overloading with the over-the-top signs in CAPITALS. It is not attractive.

I could go on, but these five points would in themselves make a huge difference to W H Smith’s business, so why not give it a go, guys?

* This article is purely the opinion of the author who is a Brighton-based specialist in media training, public relations and copywriting, working in London and Sussex.