It’s not fair to judge WH Smith on the views of 171 shoppers, but Which would probably have got the same result if it had surveyed 10 times as many people.
Last night it was our sister magazine Drapers’ annual footwear awards at the Grosvenor House, a glamorous affair as you’d expect. I have to admit that if there was such a thing as Retail Mastermind, shoes wouldn’t be my specialist subject, but I was pleased to be able to present the multiple retailer category to Colin Temple of Schuh, a very deserving winner. Colin was back on the stage again for the online retailer of the year category, again, definitely the right decision for an excellent business that does a great job in its category.
So a good night for Schuh but someone who didn’t have such a good day yesterday was our good friend Kate Swann, who got a real shoeing (if you pardon the pun) after WH Smith came joint bottom (along with Currys Digital) in Which magazine’s survey of customer service. For some reason Currys’ failings were largely ignored in the papers - perhaps because electrical stores being accused of poor service is old news - but poor old Kate got the most spectacular and very personal monstering at the hands of the Daily Mail.
It’s ironic that as a retailer which makes a living from selling newspapers and magazines, Smiths is so useless in its relationships with the media, but belatedly it sent a statement out yesterday afternoon, accusing Which of basing its findings on just 171 responses. If that’s the case it’s a poor show by such a respected publication. Our monthly ICM polls are based on surveys of over 2,000 shoppers and 171 simply isn’t a sufficiently representative sample on which to damn a business as the worst on the high street.
The fact is though that they could have surveyed ten times as many shoppers and the result might well have come out the same, because visiting WH Smith is often not a great retail experience. My local store is awful - stock all over the place, long queues, slow and often disinterested service. Speaking about the stores in general, staff often seem to be undertrained in processes which slows down service - on Wednesday trying to buy a copy of Private Eye in the St Pancras branch, there were two men behind the counter but only one serving, while the other was faffing around with a folder of paper and complaining that the documents wouldn’t fit in it, while customers were waiting. In the airport stores, the queues are in my experience frequently enormous.
Add to that the chuggers, the flogging of Haribos and Toblerones you don’t want at the checkout and the staggering prices charged in the travel stores, and a visit to Smiths isn’t always a lot of fun. The question quite legitimately raised by the Mail is whether Swann cares? After all, if you want to buy a book, newspaper or magazine at Heathrow or Victoria, there’s only one shop you can buy it in. And Swann is adored in the City for driving up profits and hammering away at the cost base, and has personally done extremely well out of the company’s financial success.
Swann deserves a lot of credit for saving a business which could have become another Woolworths, and is a result has been linked with a lot of jobs, including the Royal Mail and Marks & Spencer. But her approach just wouldn’t work in organisations with their heritage, and she’d be absolutely crucified if she tried. Slashing costs and changing the product mix has delivered results for Smiths against all the odds, but at some point Swann is going to have to do something to improve the customer experience.
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