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Business Comment

Jim Armitage: It may be dowdy and geriatric, but WH Smith can still return a profit

Outlook WH Smith's Stephen Clarke, like Kate Swann before him, is to be commended. For if ever there was a high street chain that should exist no more, it was this.

Pretty much everything the company sells is cheaper online. Its products are mostly unglamorous (this newspaper excepted, of course) and are almost exclusively generic . Nobody thinks: what I need is a WH Smith-quality copy of The Independent and a WH Smith-quality HB pencil.

Similarly, you are never likely to hear anybody say: "Oh goody, there's a WH Smith – my favourite shop!"

WH Smith's management seems to have sussed this out. As a result, rather than spend a fortune trying to create some doomed-to-fail "retail theatre" concept to wow the punters (Hall of Rulers? Felt-Tip World?), it's opted to just keep stripping down costs and maintaining profit margins.

As such, the stores may be looking fairly dowdy, but it is still going, and making a pretty fine old profit to boot.

In a trading statement yesterday, Mr Clarke promised investors would be seeing a "good profit performance" from the past few months, despite the inevitable fall in sales – 7 per cent down on the high street. It's throwing off decent cash, too, and returning £50m of it to shareholders.

It's not all managed decline, either. At its shops in airports and railways, it actually managed to push through an increase in sales and is opening new stores. Here, the impulse factor – presumably travellers bored into buying stuff or forgetting to pack a decent book for the journey – is still proving lucrative.

Proof that it's possible to squeeze tidy money from old economy geriatrics before they finally pop their clogs.