Comics shelves at WHSmith St Annes - Photo: Mark Hetherington

High street comics retailer WHSmith ranked bottom of annual Which? poll

Comics shelves at WHSmith St Annes - Photo: Mark Hetherington
Comics shelves at WHSmith St Annes – Photo: Mark Hetherington

WHSmith has finished bottom of the Which? annual UK high street shops survey rankings of more than 100 shops for the ninth year in a row, while specialist retailers come out on top.

The annual survey of more than 7700 Which? members looked at the bricks and mortar shops offering the best in-store experiences, amid concerns for the future of the UK high street.

WHSmith propped up the table with a meagre customer score of 50 per cent, accompanied by Homebase/Bunnings with a score of 53 per cent and Sports Direct with 54 per cent.

It will come as no surprise to comic buyers confounded in their attempts to find their favourite comics that the retailer was slammed by customers who rated it very poor for value for money, service, and in-store experience.

Shoppers criticised the “cramped and messy” stores, with one complaining that “stores are crowded, dirty and the staff unhelpful”, while another said “my local store is untidy and too small for comfort.”

Taking the top spot was Richer Sounds, with a customer score of 89 per cent, alongside Rohan (87%) and John Lewis (86%).

Which? surveyed shoppers on their in-store experiences, with responses for over 100 major retailers. Customer scores are made up of how satisfied they were with their experience and whether they would recommend the retailer.

The results of the survey come with the future of the UK high street hanging in the balance, following a series of high-profile brands announcing store closures and falling into administration.

A number of retailers underperforming in the high street survey also ranked poorly in Which?’s most recent online shops survey. Homebase.co.uk and SportsDirect.com languished at the bottom of the table with 55 per cent and 61 per cent respectively. WHSmith.co.uk fared only slightly better, with a score of 63 per cent.

When it came to experiences of shopping in-store, 88 per cent of shoppers valued the hands-on experience of being able to touch or try on a product before buying, while 69 per cent said they appreciated being able to take away the product there and then.

“Worries about the future of the high street aren’t going away anytime soon, but it’s clear that there is still demand from shoppers for the experience and services offered by physical stores that can’t always be replicated online,” comments Harry Rose, Editor of Which? Magazine,

“Giving shoppers a great in-store experience is more important than ever if brands want to thrive on the high street. Our findings go to show that if retailers can deliver great value, quality products and first-class customer service, customers will keep coming back.”

WHSMITH HITS BACK

Typically bullish, WHSmith hit back at the survey, noting just 586 customers had commented on its stores in the survey.

“This survey… is neither statistically relevant nor meaningful relative to our loyal customer base,” a spokeswoman told the BBC. “Every week we serve three million customers in our 600 UK High Street stores and have maintained our presence on the high street where many other retailers are closing stores.”

WHSmith currently has 286 units open across 27 countries and 50 airports, and has opened 42 new units last year including what the retailer sees as “significant tenders” in South America and Europe – but it has also closed stores, and announced more to come last October.

The Children's Magazine section of WHSmith Lancaster in March 2019. Because the store has given over shelf to other products, comics and magazines are tightly packed on the shelf space allocated, making titles hard to find or worse, damaged by handling. The situation is even worse in smaller stores. Some titles don't even make it to the shelves in some stores. Stories abound of DC Thomson title Commando being placed behind counters out of site, stores citing theft as the reason for its lack of display
The Children’s Magazine section of WHSmith Lancaster in March 2019. Because the store has given over shelf to other products, comics and magazines are tightly packed on the shelf space allocated, making titles hard to find or worse, damaged by handling. The situation is even worse in smaller stores. Some titles don’t even make it to the shelves in some stores. Stories abound of DC Thomson title Commando being placed behind counters out of site, stores citing theft as the reason for its lack of display

CUSTOMER VIEWS REMAIN CRITICAL OF COMPANY

I’m not supportive of the way WHSmith currently operates, and I’m clearly not alone, judging from this survey and comments by comics buyers on social media.

“I was angered at their recent decision to make a comic they always stock, customer reservation only,” commented artist Rick Stone earlier this month, after Titan Comics Doctor Who title disappeared from the shelves of his local WHSmith in Blackpool. “It just didn’t appear in the shop at its due publication date.

“I spoke to the employee who’s section it is and they told me that they’re down for four copies that always sell. When they made further enquiries for me, it turned out WHSmith management had decided to make it reservation only – and there was no guarantee of getting the latest copy.”

Titan Comics editorial staff weren’t made aware of the WHSmith decision, Rick discovered, which comics fan Peter Bangs reported had also impacted Panini’s Marvel reprint titles in WHSmith Southampton.

“It’s no wonder a lot of British comics struggle and fail with the retailer’s monopoly over them… I don’t know how they stay in business not supporting magazine and comic publishers and readers this way.”

Wrongly racked: WHSmith Lancaster mis-racked Issue Two of Comic Scene in the children's comics and magazines shelving, when it should be in the area alongside INFINITY, SFX and Doctor Who Magazine where its target audience would be more likely to find it
Wrongly racked: WHSmith Lancaster mis-racked Issue Two of Comic Scene in the children’s comics and magazines shelving, when it should be in the area alongside INFINITY, SFX and Doctor Who Magazine where its target audience would be more likely to find it

“Branches seem to make their own choices [when it comes to where titles are racked]” said Lew Stringer during a discussion about mis-racking of titles where customers most likely to buy them would see them. “If you get staff who think all comics / SF are for children, that’s where they’ll put them. On the other hand, there are some WHSmith branches who put all comics for teen plus readers behind the counter out of reach of kids.

“It’s a frustrating business, dealing with retail.”

WHSmith mistake, in my view, has been to turn away from magazines, comics and newspapers as their Unique Selling Point in favour of a wider mix promoting its stationery lines, at the loss of much self space for publications.

STILL IN PROFIT – BUT HOW MUCH LONGER?

The approach WHS has taken to its retail offering may have worked for them commercially in the past, but the company reported a fall in half-year profits in April, posting a 21 per cent drop in statutory pre-tax profit to £65m in the six months to February, which it attributed to the acquisition of American travel retailer InMotion. 

Retail Week reported that on an operating basis, WHS profits inched up just one per cent to £92m during the period, the company’s  travel division (largely, shops in airports and railways stations) delivering a seven per cent increase in trading profit to £44m, as like-for-likes advanced  three per cent.

In contrast, its high street arm suffered a four per cent drop in earnings to £48m.

The company is continuing a cost efficiency programme and expects full-year cost savings to be about £12m, slightly ahead of its target.

WHICH? SAMPLING IN LINE WITH MARKET RESEARCH GUIDANCE?

WHSmith might also be more worried that of the almost 8000 surveys Which? received, well over the required representative sampling, only 586 even bothered to comment on them, instead of bemoaning the size of the sample.

An average representative sample by market researchers in the UK is considered to be around 1000 people to minimise margin of error in terms of results. Overall, Which? surveyed 7784 members about the in-store purchases they had made during the past 12 months in January. At least 30 responses are needed for a retailer to make the tables (sample sizes in brackets, below). Overall customer score is based on satisfaction and the likelihood of recommending each shop.

Additionally, Which? asked about experiences of shopping for products in different categories. To calculate category customer scores, shoppers were asked how satisfied they were with their experience of shopping at the retailer, and whether they would recommend that retailer for purchases in that category.

• For the full results of the Which? Survey, visit: http://which.co.uk/highstreetshops2019

Top rated shops

1) Richer Sounds – 89% (223)
2) Rohan – 87% (256)
3) John Lewis – 86% (824)
4) Hotter Shoes – 84% (310)
= Lakeland – 84% (512)
= Toolstation – 84% (444)
7) Apple – 83% (316)
= Bodycare – 83% (99)
= Crew – 83% (68)
10) Screwfix – 82% (587)
= Seasalt – 82% (201)
= Waterstones – 82% (565)

Bottom rated shops

101) Clinton Cards – 61% (488)
102) Peacocks – 59% (153)
= House of Fraser – 59% (303)
104) New Look – 58% (124)
105) River Island – 56% (62)
= JD Sports – 56% (132)
107) Sports Direct – 54% (396)
108) Homebase/Bunnings – 53% (486)
109) WH Smith – 50% (586)

The number in brackets represents the number of responses for that retailer.

• For the full results of the Which? Survey, visit: http://which.co.uk/highstreetshops2019

Published by

Avatar

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

One thought on “High street comics retailer WHSmith ranked bottom of annual Which? poll

  1. “Every week we serve three million customers in our 600 UK High Street stores and have maintained our presence on the high street where many other retailers are closing stores.”

    Would that be because they have no real competition and therefore no incentive to improve?

Let us know what you think about this story

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.