pounds 12,000 new look fails to impress

NIGEL COPE

The newly refurbished branch of WH Smith at Holborn Circus in central London is billed by the company as the WH Smith of the future. Re-opened earlier this month, it is the first store in the group to get the "new- look" treatment.

By the end of October, 400 of the retailer's 547 branches will look like this and it is on this design, layout and product content that the beleaguered management of WH Smith is pinning its recovery hopes.

The trouble is, it doesn't look terribly different. Smith is spending just pounds 5m on the re-fit programme, which works out at pounds 12,500 per shop.

In modern retailing, that kind of money does not buy much beyond a lick of paint and a new sign over the door.

There is a new carpet; a bright blue affair with luminous green splodges. The signage is much improved, making departments easier to find. Small wooden desks at the sides of the stores promote special offers.

Smith's two Big Ideas are at the back of the store: the children's area and the multi- media section. The children's area consists of two mini-armchairs in royal blue with yellow piping. In the centre is a carousel bearing soft toys and other low-ticket items at grabbable height from the floor, surrounded by banks of books.

Smith's other hope is the multi-media section which is selling one "recommended" CD-Rom PC and a host of software. The emphasis is on education, with signs saying "Getting started with Multi-media" and leaflets explaining the basics. Shoppers are invited to ask for a demonstration.

Several adults were trying out the learn-to-read programme featuring Harry and the Haunted House, which, somewhat alarmingly, will teach the nation's youth to speak with Californian accents.

Analysts are unimpressed by the refurbishment. "It's pretty cosmetic stuff," said one.

"Just pounds 12,500 a store is really just tinkering at the edges. You couldn't even build an extension on your house for that."

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