W H Smith web site puts other online retailers to shame

The online retail sector is growing apace and WHSmith.co.uk is finding its place in the lead. Nathalie Towner looks at the story...

The online retail sector is growing apace and WHSmith.co.uk is finding its place in the lead. Nathalie Towner looks at the story so far

Many UK retail sites now offer more full e-commerce capability than in the US, according to research from digital consultancy Quidnunc. WHSmith.co.uk was one of the websites singled out for particularly high levels of usability. Other achievers included woolworths.co.uk and mothercare.com, who had a cohesive e-commerce strategy, which according to Quidnunc, will enable them to secure customer loyalty through an integrated service offering.

Ironically, one of the biggest barriers WHSmith.co.uk faces is its name. Everyone knows the company as Smith's and the name is so familiar to the British consumer that strong emphasis had to be placed on enforcing the url, WHSmith.co.uk. But if this is as bad as it gets then the company can feel justifiably smug as the site has already reported growth in excess of 50% per annum, accounting for 1% of the company's retail sales in the UK.

Multi-channel shopping

Organisationally the site is fully integrated into WHSmith's high street retailing arm. The aim is to allow customers to choose the most convenient way of purchasing any of the 2.1 million products on offer.

Customers can choose from the full range of multi-channel shopping, Internet, interactive TV, in-store kiosks and WAP. And its Internet policy states that goods purchased online can be returned to a high-street store. But this service is not standard as a survey by Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) revealed: only 58% of retail sites with offline stores allow customers to return goods to the store.

The main focus of WHSmith's site is English language book selling. "WHSmith.co.uk has a range of 1.5 million books versus 20,000 in high street stores, making our products available in new locations and in new ways," says managing director, Kate Kennedy. "This has appealed to our existing customers, who shop with their Clubcard across different channels, and opened our offer up to new customers."

According to Kennedy, 70% of the population visits WHSmith in a year so the aim is not to look for new customers online. However, it believes that the site helps the saliency of the brand among heavy book buyers.

The site was launched in April 1999 after WHSmith acquired the Internet Bookshop in 1998. "We researched the role of the ISP content as a key differentiator for WHSmith.co.uk," says Kennedy. "We found the magazine content we link to our products encourages customers to come back to browse and buy."

The high-street presence has been crucial in promoting the Internet site. Seven million customers shop in the high-street stores each week and this is viewed as a constant reminder to potential online customers.

Online the site promotes itself with a base level of banner promotion with its partners and highlights specific promotions with targeted sites. The site also has an online alliance with BT for its ISP and on BT's Internet sites, as well as on TV with Carlton.com.

Despite the acknowledged success of the site, WHSmith.co.uk is still held back by customer reticence towards buying online. Profiles of the site's shopper reflect the slow uptake. Kennedy expects it to become the same as the high-street shopper in time but this transition will be slow. "The core online shopper remains male, 25-45 with above-average earning." However, Kennedy believes the trust people have in the WHSmith brand has been highly beneficial. And in a Henley Centre report published last year, WHSmith.co.uk was rated the most trusted online retailer.

Monitoring customers

"We continue to monitor our customers as they become more at ease with using the Internet," says Kennedy. "The new-look website launched in September 2000 was based on customer feedback, featuring a simple-to- use, easy-to-navigate site."

Future developments will focus on higher levels of personalisation and improving the speed of the site. And of course encouraging customers to type in the right domain name.

Areas highlighted for improvement

  • Gift wrapping
  • Delivering direct to the recipient
  • Showing shopper which new products have been added since their last visit
  • Absence of advice on which are the most popular lines
  • Status of order

    Areas that have improved

  • Providing customers with an image and full details of an item before purchase
  • Easy to contact customer services
  • Providing information on how to return goods
  • Ease of navigation

    Source: Quidnunc

    Retail therapy: who are the top high-street stores

      1999 2000
    Mothercare.com 8* 33
    Shopperuniverse.com 17 28
    Whsmith.co.uk 25 27
    Kaysnet.com n/a 27
    Woolworths.co.uk n/a 27
    Dixons.co.uk 24 25
    Marks-and-spencer.co.uk 10 25
    Most notable improvements    
    Mothercare.com 8 33
    Next.co.uk 4 17

    * Quidnunc created 21 consumer scenarios to grade the website's ability to fulfil each user goal and gave a total score out of 42.

  • This was last published in February 2001

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