Whsmith's Strategy

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From its humble roots as a family newspaper distribution business using horse drawn carts from the first newspaper distribution warehouse, expanding by taking advantage of the spread of the rail network for both distribution and later book stalls in the stations which, in turn spread to form the company we all now recognise as W H Smith.

The corporation is divided into W H Smith Retail (high street and travel stores), W H Smith News (distribution) and W H Smith Direct (online) businesses and for the purpose of analysis it is important to understand the division between business units as competitive advantage is achieved at the level of each strategic business unit (SBU) and understood through competitive strategy whereas achieving synergy through the combination and management of the SBUs is the goal of corporate strategy. ‘A diversified company has two levels of strategy: business unit (or competitive) strategy and corporate (or companywide) strategy' (Porter, 1988)

The focus of this study is specifically on the high street retail stores which can presently be divided into 4 strategic business units, books, magazines and newspapers, stationary (including greetings cards) and entertainment. They are all served through the same channel but there is considerable variety in the competitors which they face albeit there is some cross over.

‘Two parts of an organisation should only be regarded as the same SBU if they are targeting the same customer types, through the same sort of channels and facing similar competitors.' (Johnson et al., 2005)

Although W H Smith high street retail as established above comprises 4 SBUs each facing different competitors, the threat of customers purchasing their products from other retailers who have staked out a more competitive strategic position is the same for each of them.

‘W H Smith is caught up in a pincer movement between the supermarkets, busy nibbling away in areas such as newspapers, magazines and music as well as bestselling books and DVDs, and the specialist book and music retailers with bigger ranges, better availability and staff who actually read books.' (Hosking, 2004)

W H Smith is known as a legacy brand which suggests that the brand itself has value due to the high level of customer recognition, however this tag also points to the fact that they are considered to have made very little progress in developing the company position and have been left behind by their competitors and market developments allowing their performance to deteriorate. This is caused by a failure to pre-empt or even react to the changes that are going on around them. This is mostly a problem of the high street retail division of the business, hence the focus of this study.

Ms Swann admitted the firm had lost out to competition from supermarkets and had not helped itself by providing "an inconsistent product offer and an inadequate strategic response to competition". (BBC, July 2004)

This phenomenon is known as strategic drift and is often followed by a period of flux in which strategies are changed but with no new and clearly defined direction at which point it is necessary for transformational change to occur to avoid the eventual demise of the company.

…transformational change, in which there is a fundamental change in the strategic direction, though this is infrequent. This pattern has become known as punctuated equilibrium (which) is the tendency of strategies to develop incrementally with periodic transformational change.' (Johnson et al, 2005)

The present position of W H Smith, after several years of bad financial results, culminating in a bid by a private equity firm Permira which was curtailed due to the size of the pension deficit, Ms Swann has improved the financial results more recently through a process of consolidation on a corporate level to return funds to shareholders and targeting the supply chain with the introduction of a EPOS system and a focus on...
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