At 225, WHSmith is the oldest retail chain in the world. Retail Week chronicles its history, looks back at store fronts through the ages and speaks to its high street boss about the retailer’s future.

Timeline: WHSmith’s 225-year history

What does the future hold for WHSmith?

WHSmith’s new high street boss Carl Cowling insists that the future of the high street is bright for those who innovate as he meets Retail Week at one of his new-format stores in Reading.

Cowling, who took over WHSmith’s high street business last month after three years at the helm of its travel division, says giving customers new reasons to visit the stalwart’s 600 high street stores will be key to its success.

Carl cowling web

Carl Cowling, WHSmith

Carl Cowling, WHSmith

“I think the high street is coming to life with new fashion retailers and brands,” he says. “The physical book market is also strong again, as is stationery, and people are buying these things from physical shops.

“Although we’re 225 years old, we move quite fast. It’s what makes the business great.

“We’re constantly optimising our space, looking at different ranges, making sure that new trends and fashions are put in front of our customers – ideally at a faster rate than our competitors. That’s almost our business as usual now.”

With this in mind, staying on-trend is a priority for Cowling.

Jumping on crazes, such as adult colouring books, has proven profitable for WHSmith in recent years.

The retailer is revamping its stores to better showcase products.

“We’re constantly thinking about how to display our fashion ranges better and looking at rural stores to try and make them a bit nicer and inviting to people”

Carl Cowling, WHSmith

Reading, which follows on from the Holborn shop revamp, puts its digital offer at the front of the store, and gives much more room to fashion stationery.

The customer journey is simplified with clear signage, and the Reading store is artfully decorated and features an Instagram pillar.

Although the new-format locations are unlikely to be rolled out across its vast estate, Cowling insists that WHSmith stores are receiving some TLC.

“I can’t see us suddenly rolling out this concept everywhere, but we’re constantly thinking about how to display our fashion ranges better and looking at rural stores to try and make them a bit nicer and inviting to people,” he says.

The retailer has also dived head-first into the world of social media by tying up with a number of influencers.

It launched its Zoella young adult book club and kids’ book club with former McFly member Tom Fletcher, who has more than 1.5 million followers on Instagram.

But, as well as focusing on the future, Cowling is proud of the chain’s heritage.

“You can’t help but love WHSmith a little bit. Nothing nasty is going to happen to you in a WHSmith store. It’s a family brand where people feel comfortable and we sell a lot of products that make people happy”

Carl Cowling, WHSmith

“I feel very proud to be at the head of the oldest chain of stores in the world – I used to buy my comics from here and pens when I was a boy,” he admits.

“You can’t help but love WHSmith a little bit. Nothing nasty is going to happen to you in a WHSmith store. It’s a family brand where people feel comfortable and we sell a lot of products that make people happy.”

Although no-one can be certain what the UK high street will look like in another 225 years’ time, or even the next 20 years, Cowling is “very optimistic” about its future.

“The way people shop on the high street will always evolve, and certainly the way they pay, but I think people will always want to touch and feel products in shops.

“The world’s not going to be a very bright place if people just sit at home.”