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‘Blended essentials’: Inside WHSmith’s new flagship retail concept

Leading news, books and travel essentials retailer WHSmith officially unveiled a new flagship store at London Heathrow Terminal 2 last week. It features a WHSmith world-first LED fascia, a radical new design and an in-house pharmacy, in partnership with Well. As the exclusive travel retail media representative, The Moodie Davitt Report’s Mark Lane sat down with WHSmith CEO Carl Cowling and WHSmith Travel Managing Director Toby Kier to discuss the new concept.

The Moodie Davitt Report: What is the significance of this new store for WHSmith?

Carl Cowling (CC): It’s a big store for us. We came up with the concept of a blended essentials shop a couple of years ago and put a store into Gatwick with a pharmacy, but this new facility at Heathrow has taken that a step further. Increasingly, consumers are looking for all the essentials in one place and we have been pretty good over the last few years about bringing together books, magazines, convenience and electrical accessories. This is the next step in the journey, bringing health and beauty into that.

Here, customers can come in and experience all of those essential categories. We have been working on this store now for over a year and the initial results have been really impressive. It’s quite hard to measure these things in the current circumstances but we can say that the spend per passenger has gone up markedly and at such an early stage that’s pretty pleasing.

Carl Cowling: A landmark opening for WHSmith

What are the highlights for you in terms of the store’s design, newness and experience?

CC: In terms of design experience, I think we have done health and beauty really well. We have brought those categories together in the space in the left-hand part of the store and it really stands out. It’s had a great reaction from customers; the feedback is that it is a nice journey through the store. I’m really pleased that it almost seems seamless. It doesn’t look like a collection of little stores within one big store, it’s got a really nice blended feel throughout and I’m pretty pleased with how we’ve done that.

And I think the external look of the store is pretty striking as well, with the LED signage outside a really big draw. I’ve been to many airports around the globe and I can’t recall seeing anything quite like that. I don’t think I’ve seen essentials done in such a good way in any airport.

The new concept unmasked: (from left) Well Pharmacy CEO Seb Hobbs, WHSmith Travel UK Managing Director Toby Keir, WHSmith CEO Carl Cowling, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow Chief Commercial Officer Ross Baker and Heathrow Retail Director Fraser Brown

What is the thinking behind a full service pharmacy inside the store?

CC: In a large terminal it is necessary to have a pharmacy because people might have an anxiety about flying; people might have ill children; people might need medication and the professional advice that goes with that.

And if you think about the volume of consumers coming through this sort of environment, you do need a pharmacist’s advice. Using the example of our Gatwick pharmacy, the pharmacist there is always very busy.

Aiming for a point of difference in design, style and offer at Heathrow T2

Health & beauty represents an emerging category for the retailer, which has blended space for its pharmacy goods and services with popular brands

One thing that stands out both visually and in terms of the offer is the destination section. How was this conceived?

Toby Kier (TK): We are trying to make sure all of our stores don’t look just the same, and the souvenir element is one way of achieving that. It’s Heathrow Airport, the Queen’s Terminal. We want to link it to that and to London, so that was our focus here.

A lot of passengers want the standard Union Jacks and Paddington Bears and that is all available but we wanted to move it forward. So our buying team has talked to London museums such as the British Museum and the V&A and we have got some fantastic creative products from sources like that.

We also have a new partnership with Carnaby Street-founded business We Built This City, which produces product ranges based on the work of London artists. From them, we have sourced store-exclusive items based on that kind of work. Rather than just supply familiar tourist souvenir items, which are great, we want to really update that and get people buying new products from us.

The feel of the souvenirs area is added to by an LED Big Ben, which chimes every 15 minutes. It all adds to the fun and the results are phenomenal so far.

Toby Kier: Moving the destination category forward

The feel of the souvenirs area is added to by an LED Big Ben, which chimes every 15 minutes. It all adds to the fun and the results are phenomenal so far.

CC: Often souvenirs can be seen as a bit tacky, but what we are offering is anything but tacky. It will be really interesting to see, as passengers pick up, how successful the souvenir element becomes. I think that is something that can be reimagined for other stores around the world.

TK: Every store is different and the souvenir offer needs to reflect the different passenger mixes at different airports. Heathrow has a very different passenger blend from say London Stansted or New York or Sydney. We have spent a lot of time and effort and resource to make sure that the souvenir offer of this store is tailored to the passengers in this location.

Chiming with the city mood: London icons such as the big red bus and Big Ben evoke the nearby capital

With 5,100sq ft you have plenty of space; how did you plan the flow of passengers and the 26 till points?

CC: Space is really important – it’s the main asset in an airport. Yes it might be a bit quieter now but it will get busy again. If you think about this terminal there are normally 9 million passengers coming through it in a year, so it’s very congested. So as much as we would love to have more space, we need to make sure we are very efficient in the space available to us.

In designing the zones we have created a lot more linear footage and that has worked well. But at the same time we have to be fixated on the passenger flow. If you think about the old way of having tills at the back of the store, if you have got a lot of new passengers walking into your store and lots trying to walk out through the same entrance/exit, it’s not a good experience. So we have started redesigning stores – starting at Gatwick – improving flow into the stores and back out into the terminal, which you can see in evidence here. The details are really important to make sure the passenger experience is as good as it can be.

TK: We have worked a lot on queues in our traditional stores and these newer layouts are great at getting the flow through. We have some busy stores where the tills are at the back and this is just not a great experience. If people walk past and are looking in and see a big queue – there is nothing more off-putting.

We are also working on some ideas around fast, frictionless payment, with the need accelerated by the COVID crisis – we have got an app that we are trying at the moment.

We have the potential of loading the app, scanning the barcode and you can walk straight out after paying through Apple Pay or similar. So here you could be in and out of the store in 20 seconds, paid. There’s a lot of business traffic here at Heathrow where time is really important and we were fixated on making sure there aren’t queues.

This store can be a model for other blended essentials outlets, says WHSmith

This store can be a model for other blended essentials outlets, says WHSmith

Might we see more stores like this in other airports?

CC: Absolutely. It has worked really well in Gatwick and it already looks like it is working very well here. When I think about our businesses in Australia, Asia and the Middle East I can see this sort of format store working incredibly well. So it’s something we will want to talk to all landlords about. We need to get the blended essentials under one roof.

We have several iterations now and we think we have a concept that looks like it’s one shop, feels like it’s one shop but actually has all those different elements of specialism. My view is that other airports will really like that concept and we will be able to go to them with the kind of numbers that show how well it’s doing in Gatwick, how well it is doing in Heathrow. We will have gone through all of our teething issues.

If I had the benefit of being able to bring international landlords here and show them this store – not simple in the COVID-19 climate! – I think there would be a lot of interest in being able to export the concept.

The Heathrow Airport view

Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye: “I think it’s a fantastic store. One of the greatest things about it is that it flows so beautifully. One of the big issues when the airport is busy are queues, but this has been designed so that people keep moving – the number of tills is a big plus. If a passenger is thinking about going in to a shop and they see a queue they will often avoid it. By really focusing on removing those bottlenecks, WHSmith has ensured that an increasing number of people are going to shop here.

“The expansion of the souvenirs offer is terrific. It is one of the things we always look for at Heathrow – to give a real sense of Britishness when you are travelling through this airport. I think WHSmith has done a really good job of bringing that into the store, in the process promoting some local designers and a local brand in We Built This City. The local offer you see in a lot of airports is very generic and standardised – here it’s been beautifully curated to give people the choice of some unique souvenirs of London and the UK.”

Heathrow Retail Director Fraser Brown: “For WHSmith and for us at the airport, this store is really important, combining for the first time all of the essentials that a passenger needs in one place. Customers can find the things they need easily and quickly, in a very convenient manner.

“The WHSmith team and my retail team have worked together to design a store which not only very neatly covers off those essential categories, but does it in a layout that is very clever, very practical, very inviting, with quick means to make payment. It also has a great façade and encourages passengers to engage with the retail theatre that has been created, successfully merging digital with physical elements.”

Heathrow CEO John-Holland Kaye (left) speaks with Mark Lane about the new WHSmith T2 store; more Heathrow reaction and comment coming soon.

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The Moodie Davitt eZine

Issue 282 | 2 September 2020

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 12 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit www.moodiedavittreport.com and to subscribe, please e-mail sinead@moodiedavittreport.com

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