WH Smith has just received the unfortunate ‘honour’ of receiving the lowest customer service rating in a UK league table of customer satisfaction.

WH Smith has just received the unfortunate ‘honour’ of receiving the lowest customer service rating in a UK league table of customer satisfaction. According to the report, published by Which? last week, respondents also claimed that the retailer’s stores were ‘messy’ and ‘expensive’. 

More than 11,000 consumers responded to the survey, giving WH Smith an average of 51% overall satisfaction rate. Such a negative score positioned WH Smith as the lowest-ranking shop on the high street, followed closely by the retail outlets of EE, the mobile phone network provider created from the combination of Orange and T-Mobile’s businesses. 

While these results may not be surprising for some, there is no denying the fact that WH Smith definitely has a strong customer base out there - the company announced pre-tax profits of just under £70 million at the end of February. Chief executive Kate Swann has been widely credited for improving the fortunes of the chain in recent years but will step down in June, leaving Steve Clark, managing director of the group’s high street division, to take the helm.

Will Mr Clark be able to continue the success of his predecessor? Or will these poor customer service rankings start to take their toll? Only time will tell. When you consider the type of products that WH Smith sells, it’s easy to question the company’s relevance on the high street. After all, consumers can now find all of these same items in many other places – supermarkets, convenience stores, online – and often at a lower price. 

So how is WH Smith managing to do so well? For a start, the company has been very adept at recognising how the market is moving. It has managed to diversify a great deal over the years, for example, by using some clever acquisitions to balance fundamentals like magazines and cigarettes with online shopping favourites like greeting cards and books.

Another key strength has been WH Smith’s ability to vary its store layout, product range and operating model by location. Walk into a WH Smith in any London train station and you’ll probably find some fast food, iPad chargers, and some popular fiction. Now look at a similar branch in the suburbs and you’re likely to find stacks of cigarettes and magazines instead.

In short, WH Smith understands how its customers like to shop. It was one of the first retailers to latch onto the retail potential of travel hubs and this part of the business – with its rapid expansion across train stations, airports and even hospitals – has boosted the company’s success considerably. The company is currently pushing ahead with this winning formula, both at home and overseas, planning to open 30 kiosks at train stations in China.

Taken together, all of these factors have enabled WH Smith to stay relevant in today’s dynamic retail landscape – and perhaps that is the real secret to the company’s success. Kate Swann has done a fantastic job as the company’s chief executive in this regard and soon Steve Clark will need to address this same challenge. And that’s not an easy task. Whilst some consumers may be willing to overlook complaints like ‘messiness’, WH Smith will still need to work hard to maintain its relevance in the market, especially as the supermarkets and convenience stores continue to close in.

  • Dan Coen, director, Zolfo Cooper