In defence of WHSmith – the nation’s “most hated shop”

There’s a strain of class prejudice in the eruption of hate towards a place where many buy their books.

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There are lies, damned lies and… statistics about British high street shops. The latest bank holiday brouhaha — a common product of bored news rooms and slow days — was sparked by a Which? survey that crowned WHSmith the nation’s most hated shop. It ‘won’ the same title back in 2013.   

In some ways, the dubious honour makes a lot of sense. Former employees of WHSmith tell horror stories about being threatened with fines for not pushing chocolate on customers and its current CEO took more than £3m in renumeration last year. 

It’s also worth noting that WHSmith’s management has been guilty of utterly appalling pricing decisions — £7.99 toothpaste in outlets in NHS hospitals, passed off as an “accident” — and of allowing stores to run to wrack and ruin. So much so that there is a Twitter account (@WHS_Carpet) dedicated to recording examples of horrendous carpets and other design disaster in WHSmith stores. 

The anonymous WHSmith watcher behind @WHS_Carpet told the Guardian: “The problem with WHSmith is that in order to flourish financially, it has entered a downward spiral of cutting costs on the high street to counteract falling sales.” Other common — and valid — criticisms of the store include its continuing strategy of pushing discounted chocolate at the till and reducing the number of human staff in favour of automated checkouts. 

But while 10,000 people contributed to Which?’s survey, WHSmith claims that only 184 respondents commented on its stores. It shot back: “We serve 12 million customers each week and despite a challenging retail environment, we continue to open new shops, and to maintain our presence on the UK high street.” 

Britain’s favourite stores — and for that read the shops considered brilliant by people who answer Which? surveys — are Lush, Savers and Smyths. A soap shop, an excellent discount store and a toy shop. One thing that links this unlikely trio is that they’re not places most consumers could or would visit every day. WHSmith does fill that role. And familiarity breeds contempt. 

If WHSmith is dying, then Amazon is the murder weapon and practically all of us are co-conspirators. When you visit WHSmith now, it’s usually out of necessity, drawn in to one of its railway, airport or hospital concessions. But notice something when you do — WHSmith still stocks a lot of magazines and a strong range of books in almost all of its concessions. 

As the novelist Joanne Harris, who swung to WHSmith’s defence on Twitter, noted, “there’s a good reason the National Literacy Trust chose to work with McDonald’s and WHSmith... it’s because people from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to eat out at McDonald’s and shop at WHSmith.” That matters in a Britain where 30 per cent of children don’t own a single book and one in ten adults is functionally illiterate. Plus WHmith will stock commercial fiction that many more “sophisticated” bookshops ignore and has supported new authors through its Fresh Talent scheme. 

Classic FM presenter Katie Breathwick recounted one example of the snobbery that has long surrounded the chain, yesterday: “A university interviewer once asked me sneers questions about why I worked in the book department of the ‘god-awful WHSmith’... I wasn’t aware at 18 that there a snobbery about what constituted a bookshop.” 

The impact of that kind of snobbery is revealed in the recollections of Scott Pack, former head buyer at Waterstones: 

“We did research...and it was clear that many [WHSmith] customers found [Watersones], and other ‘serious’ bookshops intimidating. Some of these people read a book a week but as it was crime or romance felt they would be looked down on by booksellers... they felt that ‘literary’ books were the only books taken seriously by the media, reviewers, newspapers etc and that the books they read were seen as somehow ‘lesser.’” 

I was that reader as a teenager growing up in Norwich, a city that wasn’t then home to the same award-winning independent bookshops as it is now. I had the choice of Waterstones — where I bought the books that it was ‘cool’ to read (usually sourced from the liner notes of Manic Street Preachers records) — and WHSmith where I picked up true crime books, crime fiction and as many Discworld novels as I could afford. 

I’m far from alone. In his book-focused memoir The Year of Reading Dangerously, Andy Miller reminisces in a footnote: 

“A certain sort of reader might expect me to renounce Croydon, Smiths and even book tokens but I won’t do it. I loved all three. The same reader might expect me to report that my love of books was nurtured by an independent children’s bookshop... but it wasn’t, because there wasn’t one. We can’t all live in Muswell Hill.”

I don’t mean to imply that WHSmith was then or is now some kind of palace of culture that saves sticky-fingered wretches from illiterate destitution. It’s a shop and, like many chains, its branches vary wildly in quality. Its current problems are predominantly caused by a management that has prioritised quick bucks over quality. But, on high streets being colonised by empty hangers selling vape paraphernalia and ever more betting shops, I don’t believe WHSmith is the worst shop in any town. 

As many people have said, there’s a strain of class prejudice in the eruption of hate towards WHSmith provoked by this limited survey. A lot of the comments that have ping-ponged around Twitter and Facebook focus on the fact that it tries to flog chocolate — well, so does Waterstones — and that its stores can be a little grotty. 

I’ve got what I hope will be deemed a commercial novel coming out later this year, and I love writing for and reading independent magazines. I want WHSmith to see revival and renewal, not destruction. 

Mic Wright is a freelance journalist and CEO and partner at The Means Agency.