Still a long haul for WH Smith

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The Independent Online
The old timers at WH Smith must be wondering what's hit them. There they were chugging along happily, as they have done for the past couple of centuries. Smith's, they thought, was a law unto itself, an impregnable fortress that could withstand the worst its piffling competitors could throw at it. Management were schooled in the Smith's tradition. That usually meant a stint at Eton and the Guards before going into what was still a family business.

But how an empire has crumbled. The game has been up since the profit warning last May, when the company finally admitted that its core WH Smith chain was behaving less like a fortress and more like a house of cards. Customer traffic was down, sales of higher-margin goods were falling and the supermarkets were rolling their tanks onto the Smith's lawn by selling books, magazines and videos.

Since then the company has had to wake up fast. A new chief executive was brought in from the Post Office to replace Sir Malcolm Field. Bill Cockburn, a bustling Scot who knows a thing or two about under-achieving corporate cultures, has wasted no time shaking Smith's management by their old school ties. Two businesses sold, over 1,000 job losses and a lorryload of provisions will mean an undignified dive into the red this year.

Mr Cockburn should be given credit for a bold set of manoeuvres. But while his relinquishing of Do It All and the plans to grow Waterstones and Our Price are welcome, these are mere sideshows. What really matters its the main WH Smith chain. Plans to reduce supplier numbers and cut product lines are all very well but the key question is whether Mr Cockburn can re-establish the brand.

Besieged on all sides and with far lower margins than successful high street names such as Boots and Marks & Spencer, it's going to be at best a long haul. At worst, WH Smith will continue to decline, regardless of what Mr Cockburn does.