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High street, low opinion: 7 ways that WHSmith can change its fortune in the minds of the British people

WHSmith is suffering from a brand reputation crisis. As seen in the news, WHSmith recently finished last in the Which? annual high street shops survey, with a disappointing customer score of 50%.

Outgoing CEO Steve Clarke, when asked about the negative perception of WHSmith stores, said it was “one of the most painful aspects of my job”. Which begs the question: what needs to change for a brand that’s been voted ‘Worst retailer in the UK’ for several years on the trot?

Here at Design Bridge, those of us who grew up in the UK have fond memories of WHSmith, a huge amount of hope for its reputation and a strong affection for its presence on our British high street, so here’s our breakdown of what WHSmith should do to get its buzz back…

Find your purpose & stand for something

It seems obvious from the demise of Woolworths and House of Fraser, that high street chains can only survive if they remain relevant, have expertise in their field, and make consumers want to visit the physical store. Since Borders shut up shop, no one’s taken up the mantle of providing a diverse selection of magazines and periodical publications. Physical magazines are broadly in decline, but could WHSmith be the more everyday literacy advocate, offering an unintimidating environment in which to discover the joys of reading without the snobbery associated with some bookshops? Could you focus on stationery and communication? Chocolates and board games could still feature but perhaps as a more serendipitous accompaniment, as opposed to a competing visual interruption. More direction and more ‘WHY’ would help reduce the confusion the population currently feels – and we all know that confusion only leads to resentment.

Be more human

When you try to say all things to all men, you risk saying nothing at all. Even banks have clocked onto the fact that personality, atmosphere and tone of voice matters; consumers want to know that there’s a human behind the brands they buy. This may be a good time to ask yourself some hard questions? Do your employees like trying to push chocolate bars at the till? Do people popping in to buy their daily paper really appreciate the upsell if they’re in a rush to make their train? Behave with commercial empathy. Think about the customer journey. Be more mindful of what makes people tick, and you may just find they linger that bit longer in your stores.

Be more community minded

You’re on every high street, often the only larger shop to be found in tiny, isolated towns. Embrace this ubiquity and be a beacon of sociability in the community. Your check-outs may be the only opportunity some people have for conversation in another lonely day. Start book clubs, bridge clubs, mum-and-baby groups, make space for the people who so avidly want to connect. You can be commercially successful, but best of all you can be VITAL to people’s lives. Don’t underestimate the power of an emotional connection; kindness comes cheap and could prove an even better investment than finding an expensive replacement for your now infamous carpets.

Find the balance between consistency & flexibility

When you have so many stores and so much to offer, you need some threads of consistency. People need to see connections and the reassurance of brand assets in place. But this doesn’t have to make the stores feel ‘big brand’ or faceless. The managers can have a certain sense of autonomy in what they promote, the clubs they run, the greetings their staff use, and this would give the stores the individuality and warmth we all look for on our high street. Store branding doesn’t have to be soulless.

Be a tangible experience

Waterstones has adapted to offer a sense of real passion for books. Each store has an area where staff give their own recommendations. The shops have a library-like feel that inspires browsing and discovering something new – a tangible experience that can’t be truly replicated online. The only thing identifiable in a WHSmith experience is that it’s a sensorial overload. All bright to the point of monotone. All shouting at the same volume. All crowded. It’s a headache-inducing dash in and out, rather than a relaxed and inviting journey. Clas Ohlson is a good example of a high-street store that sells a wide variety of different products, but presents them in a logical, navigable way. It’s time to think about pace and how the WHSmith can frame other brands in an authoritative and engaging way. Which leads us on to…

Don’t let your stock cannibalise your brand

You house a lot of other brands, from Cadburys to Kindle, and they clearly require promotional POS, but alongside your shouty sales messages and shelf wobblers, it’s hard to see where WHSmith is. And as a result, neither your store or the brand on offer really benefits. Declutter, find a visual style that can work seamlessly and comfortably with other brands, and have the confidence to curate as well as promote.

Inject pride back into your brand

The name WHSmith gives us an idea that the brand has history and heritage (it really does – the first store was opened by Henry Walton Smith in 1792). There’s a person there, and yet there’s little evidence of his expertise in store, and very little in the logo or visual identity that celebrates this human history. What kind of man was Henry? Could his values and ambition some alive again? Often the original intent of a business is what made it work, so it may well be time to look back in order to move forward. Some pride and purpose would give both consumer and employee something to attach themselves to, some steady ground to stand on – and on the high street, good foundations are priceless.

Written by Holly Kielty, Creative Strategy Director at Design Bridge London, in collaboration with Benjamin Farrell, Senior Designer at Design Bridge Amsterdam.

Image by Tim Gouw via Unsplash.

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