Smith's torture on the rack
Patrick Hosking talks to the man in charge of reviving the retailer
Sunday 03 December 1995
Bamford, the chain's managing director, has one of the most challenging jobs in the high street. His task is to reverse a decline which many in the City see as irreversible - to breathe life into one of the market's most venerable but vulnerable dinosaurs.
Smith's is under attack on two sides. Supermarkets are nibbling into its core market, knocking out best-selling books, CDs, videos and greetings cards.
On its other flank, Smith's continues to lose market share to specialist stores - booksellers like Waterstone's and specialist music and video stores like Virgin and Our Price. It only adds to Bamford's indignity that some of these specialists are owned by the wider WH Smith group. Smith's is being cannibalised.
The attacks show through in the results. The chain - still the biggest contributor to group profits - made operating profits of pounds 65m in the year to May, down from pounds 77m the previous year. Sales were flat at pounds 915m, but the number of people visiting the stores was down by 3 per cent.
Bamford, who bears more than a passing resemblance to one of his best- selling authors, Jeffrey Archer, denies the chain is in terminal decline. Despite the poor performance, it attracts 7.5 million shoppers a week and boasts a 6 per cent net margin - profitability rivals would kill for.
"However," he says, "we've been a bit passive with our merchandising. Customers like to be informed, tempted, invited, helped. Those are things we've not been actively doing."
A guided tour of the Sloane Square store demonstrates what Bamford is doing to change things. The shop is brightly lit, inviting, well-signposted and awash with enticing displays for Christmas. The demise of the Net Book Agreement, the price-fixing arrangement for books, is evident. More than 100 titles are discounted. Delia Smith's Winter Collection is being promoted at pounds 9.99. Nigel Mansell peers out of a cardboard hoarding to advertise his pounds 12.99 autobiography.
Of course, the store is hardly typical. Located 30 paces from group headquarters, it is bound to be well turned out. Across town on King's Cross station the WH Smith outlet tells a different tale: grubby, cramped, uninviting. The refurbishment scheme has a long way to go.
Bamford, 41, came to Smith's via Fine Fare, Tesco and Woolworth. He earned his spurs in the WH Smith group by developing its US music chain in the late 1980s. In February 1994 he was called back to Britain to head up the core WH Smith chain. Last month he joined the group board.
He refuses to be fazed by the march of the supermarkets. "At the end of the day their business is food retailing. They have to maintain the authority of their range in mainstream food retailing. There's a limit to how much else they can tackle."
And he is relaxed about the inroads made by specialist sellers. Many shoppers are intimidated by specialist bookstores, he says. Smith's still has a role as seller of bestsellers and books as gifts - catering for the 65 per cent of the population who are not regular book buyers.
Promotions can still generate spectacular response. In October Bamford offered a free paperback to shoppers spending more than pounds 20. No less than 200,000 customers took up the offer.
But there remain many who see Bamford's efforts as mere tinkering. According to John Richards, stores analyst with NatWest Securities: "The Smith's chain's problems are strategic and structural, not managerial. Bamford is fighting a rearguard action. He will be deemed to have done well if he just stems the decline."
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 3 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 4 The most powerful passports in the world
- 5 Chinese student carries disabled friend to school every day for three years
Nepal earthquake: How you can help victims of the Kathmandu disaster
Nepal earthquake in pictures: Photos show devastation caused by 7.8 magnitude earthquake
Royal baby: Live updates as superbug closes ward at St Mary's Hospital in London where Duchess of Cambridge is due to give birth
Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
General Election 2015: The photo of a tree that proves the Tories have an image problem
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
iJobs Money & Business
£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...
£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is the o...