Friday 20 July 2018

No laughing matter for WH Smith as end of spoof humour fad hits sales

The chain posted a 4% drop in like-for-like sales across its high street stores over the 20 weeks to January 20.

High street sales at WH Smith have been hit after waning demand for spoof humour titles, such as the Five on Brexit Island series.
High street sales at WH Smith have been hit after waning demand for spoof humour titles, such as the Five on Brexit Island series.

By Holly Williams, Press Association Deputy City Editor

Retailer WH Smith said sales in its high stores were hit in the absence of any new publishing craze as the boom in demand for spoof humour titles came to an end.

The chain posted a 4% drop in like-for-like sales across its high street stores over the 20 weeks to January 20.

It blamed waning popularity of recent best-sellers such as Bruno Vincent’s Enid Blyton for grown-ups title, Five On Brexit Island, and the Ladybird book of The Mid-Life Crisis.

Shares fell 5% after the update.

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Stephen Clarke, group chief executive, said: “Our stationery and seasonal ranges, including cards and wrap, performed well with good sales growth versus last year.

“Book sales were more challenging due to the decline in spoof humour titles and no new, big publishing trends.”

The group’s star-performing travel arm remained the bright spot, with a 3% rise in like-for-like sales thanks to the surge in passengers over the Christmas holiday season.

This left overall comparable sales down 1% over the 20 weeks, with total sales flat.

WH Smith’s high street chain has been bolstered in recent years thanks initially to the fad for adult colouring in – known as colour therapy – and extreme dot-to-dot books in 2015, which was followed soon after by literary parody titles, which had the added benefit of being high-margin sales.

But Christmas 2017 was bereft of any new craze, the retailer said, although it insisted the fall in high street sales was in line with expectations.

Mr Clarke added that “while there is uncertainty in the broader economic environment, we remain confident that the group is well positioned for the year ahead”.

WH Smith continues to cut costs to offset flagging high street sales, with savings running slightly ahead of target, at around £12 million.

The firm said its travel arm – which accounts for nearly two-thirds of group profit – was set to expand further over 2018, with another 15 units planned for the UK.

It has 249 overseas travel stores, with another eight set to open in Singapore’s Changi Airport by the end of spring.

Laith Khalaf, senior analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “Christmas was a stationary affair for WH Smith, with sales flat-lining across the group as a whole.

“The newsagent is now a two-tier company, with a high street estate which is withering on the vine, and a travel business which is growing at quite a clip.”

Press Association

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