Let's just play a game - what's the most unattractive job in Britain today, the career equivalent of deck chair attendant on the Titanic? Leader of that band of no-hopers called the Conservative Party, head of an inner-city comprehensive the Government wants turned around overnight, or perhaps chief executive of a record company when all your customers want to download the products for free? All these dud jobs pale in comparison to that of running the newsagents chain of WH Smith. Kate Swann, its latest chief executive, has just announced the worst profits for years, further proof that it's war out there in retail world. All those family-founded businesses that defined the British high street for centuries - Marks and Sparks, Boots and Sainsbury's - have lost their way, and quite frankly Ms Swann must surely be scanning the sits vac columns on a daily basis.
Her survival life-belt for the chain is the ludicrous proposition that Smith's should open coffee shops in 20 of their main branches. I can already hear you spluttering into your cornflakes! This is the same woman who claimed her stores need "authority" to make an impact. As far as I can make out, the big change in the high streets of Britain has been the creeping proliferation of coffee shops. They are like rampant acne springing up from Bath to Bristol to Colchester to Bradford. Apart from the dedicated chains such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Coffee Republic, Caffé Nero and so on with their ludicrous skinny wotsit jargon and uncomfortable sofas, every shop selling anything from toilet rolls to shoes now has a coffee shop grafted on - Debenhams, Waterstone's, Ikea and Tesco for starters. So another 20 or so coffee shops in Smith's is about as useful as a couple of canoes on the Titanic. Another faux pas was Ms Swann's feeble claim that Smith's is a non-snobby kind of place where shoppers feel more comfortable buying Gazza's biography than in a specialist shop like Waterstone's. Ms Swann, when were you last in Tesco? I am not embarrassed to buy my Gazza biography in Tesco along with my socks, my CDs and all the stationery I used to buy in WH Smith before it filled itself up with offers, games, candles and DVDs. In fact I have trouble even thinking of one item I can get in WH Smith that I can't buy in a decent supermarket, including a cup of coffee. I also buy books in Waterstone's, Ottakars, in fact anywhere where they are cheap and I am passing. Shopping is only about three things - availability, price and convenience.
Let's not be sentimental about the demise of these long-established family brands. They have suffered enormously over the past 10 years because they forgot to place us, the shopper, first. So we started using the internet, consumer magazines and out-of-town discount stores. In short, we consumers flexed our muscles and exercised our complete right to make an informed choice. WH Smith bought and then sold decorating chains (Do it All), bookstores (Waterstone's) and publishers (Hodder Headline). Now Waterstone's is owned by HMV and, ironically, Tim Waterstone might make a bid for vulnerable WH Smith, the long-established business that lost its way. Likewise Boots decided to invest in alternative medicine and open clinics in its stores, only to lose millions in the process. They still can't decide whether they sell medicines, print holiday snaps, make sandwiches, create competing lines of own brand cosmetics, promote the latest diet foods or provide prescription glasses. A trip around Boots these days is about as confusing as Hampton Court Maze.
It's the same with the family-founded chain of Sainsbury. Currently under attack from Waitrose, Asda and Tesco, they've slipped down to number three in the supermarket top 10. Sainsbury sneered at Tesco and their Clubcard, and then copied them - now they are vulnerable and ripe for takeover. And as for dear old Marks and Sparks, it may have seen off Philip Green, but last week we heard the latest story of falling sales in food and children's clothing. It has dumped Lifestore and bought back Per Una, spent millions on groovy new ads, and Stuart Rose must be sitting in the new HQ with fingers crossed, hoping for a miracle.
In California, Walmart has announced that it now undercuts rival supermarket chains by 15 per cent on food, and more on most other lines. This proves conclusively there is no future whatsoever for traditionally run chains in the British high street. By 2010 they will be filled from end to end with tea and coffee emporiums and restaurants. Any surviving retailers will fall into two camps: very up-market and worth making a detour for - gorgeous little owner-operated boutiques selling kitchen equipment, furniture, lighting, books, clothes, wine and shoes; and very down-market, with discount and charity shops. There won't be a branch of Marks, Boots or WH Smith at all at the going rate, and, frankly, we, the newly ruthless shoppers, won't miss them one bit.
Helping HRH Harry
So Prince Harry has been cleared of cheating by the examination board that set and marked his AS Art papers, even though one of the people who taught him asserts at an employment tribunal that he was comprehensively helped with his coursework. I have long felt that both princes, like their father, have been helped in every inch of their feeble scholastic careers by a bunch of toadying creeps who saw it as their duty to ensure that royalty enjoys a smooth ride. An artist has already claimed that the prince based his pictures on someone else's work, so I'm not at all convinced that HRH could be arsed to do all that dreary background work to pass his written exams. The Prince of Wales wanted his sons to grow up out of the media spotlight. By sending them to Eton, not exactly the local comprehensive, he chose an establishment that would not let its status as a top brand be damaged by a producing a couple of blue- blooded academic failures. The public aren't fools. We cynically expect the two princes to pass every exam paper placed in front of them, leave colleges with glowing reports and end up in gorgeous jobs they miraculously land against enormous competition. They won't be doing anything as risky as working by themselves - look at the hash Prince Edward made of business. Do you imagine that Prince Charles could hold down a job in the real world? My case rests.
¿ Let's applaud the campaign announced by English Heritage to rid our streets of unnecessary ugly signage and clutter. My only caveat is that they've chosen Bill Bryson to lead the attack. OK, he might be your favourite travel writer. But I find him about as entertaining as Michael Palin, and twice as patronising. Bill Bryson dumped this country when he wanted to write a book about the United States. Now he's back telling us how to beautify Britain as a commissioner of English Heritage. Why can't he start sorting out eyesores in his native country, starting with that grim road from Kennedy airport into New York. There's a lifetime's work in about 20 miles, never mind moaning about cameras and litter bins in Oxford Street.