If Max was right, then WH Smith is currently the most interesting business on the high street, because it is, let's face it, a bit of a disaster area.
In the last few months I have been in three branches of WHS, and they have all been distinctly unimpressive. In fact 'bloody awful' was the phrase which first came to mind.
The first shop was in a small town in Scotland. The premises looked as if they had been taken over from a local draper in 1930, without much having been done to the place since. A wooden floor, with patchy stock. I could not help feeling that, if the shop had belonged to a local mom and pop, instead of a national chain, it would have been much smarter, sharper, better stocked, and generally on the ball.
Shop number two was in a major city. A big shop, on two floors. The problem here was twofold. First, it was Christmas, which meant, as usual, that there were mountains of crap everywhere, and will be, presumably, for the next six weeks. After which there will be a desperate attempt to unload everything which hasn't sold up to that point, which looks like being quite a lot.
The second major problem in shop number two results, I believe, from a recent management decision. I seem to remember having read a statement from Kate Swann, the newish chief executive of WHS, to the effect that the bookshelves cum display cabinets, or whatever the correct technical term is, were not high enough, thus failing to display enough material to tempt the eager customer.
Well, in this particular big city branch of WHS the new improved display shelving had recently been introduced. With the result that I found myself in a narrow canyon, surrounded on all sides by Christmas rubbish, and unable to see any indication whatever of where anything that I might actually want to buy might be. I did eventually find what I was looking for (a copy of The Stage, a weekly trade journal for the theatre and related media); but only with great difficulty and after a longish search.
In this particular store, books were on the first floor (second floor if you're an American), but my courage gave out before I got that far. I became claustrophobic, experienced breathing difficulties and had to run outside for a bit of fresh air.
The third shop, which I called at only this morning, is located in a small country town near my home. It is the branch which I visit most frequently, if only to see how things have deteriorated since my last outing. Here too we now have the new improved shelving. And lots of Christmas cards.
Like most (if not all) branches of WHS, this one still purports to be a bookshop. I asked a member of staff if they had a copy of last year's big hit, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. She asked someone else, who asked a third party. This was kind, and helpful, but does not exactly generate confidence in the top management. Once again, because of the new, above-head-height shelving, it is hard to navigate from one area to another.
There are no doubt at least 150 highly paid consultants currently advising the management of WHS on what to do in the present crisis, but here are the GOB's comments, entirely free of fee.
First of all, WHS needs to make up its mind what the bloody hell it is supposed to be selling. My nearest WHS has a floor area of roughly 35 feet by 90 feet. (I paced it out, to frowns from the staff.) In that area WHS are currently selling: magazines; books; videos and DVDs; CDs; stationery; and cards. Lots of the latter. They sell none of these well.
A recent head-office ruling has declared that in future WHS will not attempt to stock any but the most popular magazines; but this decision is not applied, so far as I can see, rationally. This morning WHS had a copy of Fortean Times (circulation 30,000) but not The Stage (circulation 40,000 -- both figures from 2003 but I doubt whether they have changed much). There are two smaller, non-chain newsagents within a stone's throw which offer at least as good a range of magazines, if not better. Certainly better if you want soft porn. Not, of course, that I do. Far too old.
Then there are books. Well, yes, WHS has books. But if I'm seriously looking I got to Ottakars, perhaps a hundred-yard walk away. Far better range of stock.
Stationery? I go to a dedicated and really rather good stationer, more or less opposite Ottakars.
Videos and DVDs? The range of stock in WHS looks pretty thin to me. OK if you want the top 10, but if you're looking for anything a bit specialised -- e.g. a DVD of The Third Man or The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer version) -- forget it. Amazon seems a much better option.
And so on. All rather depressing really.
Today's Times reports that WHS have appointed a new chairman: Robert Walker, who will take over next February. He will work one day a week, whereas the present chairman works four.
The Times makes much of this appointment, but what, I wonder, is Walker expected to do? Here is a comment from Thinking About Management, a much underrated book by Bob Holder:
A chairman should either also be chief executive, or have so much work outside the company that he cannot meddle with its executive management. It is disastrous when he, through want of anything better to do, or through conceit, establishes himself as a parallel source of authority to the managing director.Walker is at present chief executive of Severn Trent, but according to Retail Bulletin (linked from booktrade.info) he will stand down from that job in February next; he is also a non-executive director of jewellery retailer Signet. So he will evidently have time on his hands. Plus, it would seem, he will have ample incentive to get involved in day-to-day decisions, because -- according to the Times -- 'he's taking a big professional risk by taking on the challenge' of WHS.
Will Walker start to interfere? Will the lovely Kate tell him where to go? Will either of them, or both, be able to turn the company around?
The Times says that city analysts remain bearish, and so by golly do I.