WHSmith reports ‘record’ online trade – but total sales still down on the previous year

WH Smith's high street business reported a trading profit this year. Image: Shutterstock

WH Smith's high street business reported a trading profit this year. Image: Shutterstock

WH Smith today said its online businesses have traded at record levels in the opening months of its financial year – but its sales across all retail channels including its shops are trading well behind the same time last year. 

That’s despite more than 500 of its shops being able to stay open during the November and January lockdowns as an essential retailer, including its 203 high street branches that include Post Office counters and about 130 travel division shops within NHS hospitals.

 

Demand and sales at its online businesses – whsmith.co.uk, funkypigeon.com and cultpens.com – have been at record levels, and well ahead of the previous year. 

Overall, the retailer, which sells products from stationery to books and gifts and whose WHSmith retail brand is ranked Top250 in RXUK Top500 research, says in a trading update for the 20 weeks to January 16 that total revenue came in at 59% of the same time last year. Its high street business has traded at 87% of the turnover it made in the same period of the previous year, and its travel division – hit by Covid-19 travel restrictions – has turned over just 37% of its previous year revenue.

There were some relatively robust months in the autumn – October and December high street trade was 92% of the same time last year, while September travel trade was 41% of last year. But trade has been lower since January – at 70% of high street trade and 30% of travel trade – as Covid-19 lockdowns appear to have suppressed in-store demand. 

WHSmith Group chief executive Carl Cowling says that Covid-19 is continuing to have a significant effect on the group, but that it is pleased with a better than expected Christmas performance. 

He says: “In our High Street business, we worked hard to navigate our way through the evolving Covid restrictions as we approached the Christmas trading period. This positioned us well, resulting in a better than expected Christmas with sales in December at 92% of 2019 levels. Our online businesses continued to deliver significant year on year growth in the period.

“In our travel business, we saw little change in the environment prior to the current lockdown, as expected, with sales in December at 36% of 2019 levels. We remain focused on average transaction values which continue to grow, cost control, and operational efficiencies and I am pleased with the progress we are making, particularly given the backdrop of significantly reduced passenger numbers. In North America, we have seen a quicker recovery versus the rest of the world, given the higher volume of domestic travel.” 

At the end of its last financial year, WH Smith had 568 high street shops and 1,174 travel business shops. 

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