Wednesday 26 August 2015

The Millwall FC of British retailing

I have a sneaking admiration for companies whose approach to public relations mirrors that of Millwall football supporters: “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

It’s a bold strategy and obviously one that works best for businesses that offer some unique advantage – exclusive products, exceptional prices or outstanding convenience – that will keep the customers coming anyway.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who much likes Amazon, whether on the grounds of alleged tax avoidance, claims that they overwork their staff, or simply because of the way they sneakily keep trying to add an annual Prime subscription at the checkout.

Yet overwhelmingly we keep using them anyway because they are keenly priced, efficient, and it’s a whole lot easier just to click on their website than to re-enter all our information on someone else’s.

The continued survival of WH Smith is altogether harder to understand, in a world where high street bookselling is on the ropes, and news sales are declining.

I used to handle financial PR for Smiths 30 years ago, when it was a patrician company run by chaps who had been to top public schools and served in decent regiments. Said chaps included some scions of the founding family.

The company once treated me to a night on a newspaper train from Euston, on which I marvelled at the way the sorters grabbed handfuls of different papers to prepare the orders for individual newsagents, which were picked up by vans from the stations en route. This is a world that has now completely vanished.

On another occasion I took a leading investment analyst to the country house where Smiths honed their rising talent, putting them over military style assault courses to develop their management skills.

“Have you ever thought,” the analyst asked, “of just incentivising them according to the financial performance of their stores instead?”

The look on the HR expert’s face made it clear that this was just about the grubbiest and silliest idea he had ever heard.

How different it all is now, when Smiths is renowned in the City as a company that single-mindedly keeps profits moving ahead in a generally unpromising market place.

One of its weapons is the self-service till, of which they became an early and dedicated exponent. On several occasions I have abandoned shopping baskets out of sheer frustration at being compelled to queue to serve myself while staff lurk about chatting.

At least I thought the self-service tills would not try to offload a giant bargain bar of chocolate on me with a simple newspaper purchase. But no, they have programmed them to do that, too.

They also famously operate a network of stores in motorway service stations where everything seems an awful lot more expensive than one would expect them to be at a supermarket, though maybe quite compelling once one has factored in the time and fuel costs of diverting to a supermarket to buy them there instead.

Then there are the airport stores and the famous “show your boarding card” VAT scam which has attracted so much publicity of late. Smiths were asked to comment on this when they recently issued a trading update, but showed no such inclination. “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

Instead they attributed their continuing financial success to book launches, including the latest “Shades of Grey” pulp fiction, that thing from Harper Lee’s bottom drawer, and a craze for colouring books for grown-ups.

No, really. Who knew?

I’m planning to cash in on the best of both worlds by writing a tedious, mildly pornographic novel targeted at the “ladies who lunch” market, with the added bonus of outlines of all the climactic scenes that they can colour in with crayons.

I can see it doing very well in WH Smith, where I have belatedly realised that the self-service tills are not a cost-saving measure after all, but an attempt to spare the blushes of its soft porn-loving clientele.

How much simpler life would have been if only they had been around when I was a teenage buyer of Parade magazine.

I shall call my masterpiece “Would You Like a £1 Bar of Chocolate With That?” and sit back to wait for my royalties to flood in.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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