WHSmith all quiet on the franchising front

When a retail giant like WHSmith announces plans to trial a new method of franchising in the form of new WHSmith Local stores, the franchise industry, as a whole, sits up and takes note. Interestingly, the UK’s largest newsagent chain was unexpectedly tight-lipped on its plans.

What I can report is that WHSmith is trialing franchising in new ‘WHSmith Local’ stores in and around high streets. The first store in this trial, in Clapham, London, has rebranded as WHSmith Local, with two more stores to begin trading under the name shortly. What I unfortunately cannot report, is much more.

Famously, it was with immense difficulty that the late, great Sir David Frost forced an anguished Richard Nixon to admit his presidential wrongdoings in a notorious set of 1977 interviews. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when getting information out of a WHSmith Spokesperson about a new franchising proposal proved a comparable challenge. When asked why WHSmith took the decision to begin franchising now, this anonymous representative delivered a response that would have turned even Tricky Dicky green with diplomatic etiquette envy: “Franchising isn’t new for WHSmith - we already have over 100 franchised stores in motorway service areas across the UK, and around two thirds of our stores in international locations are operated on a franchise basis. WHSmith Local is a very small trial of a new format, on a franchise basis.”

WHSmith Local stores are high street locations that are franchise owned. However, I gleaned the distinct impression that this franchise trial is shrouded in corporate secrecy.

When asked how the new model for franchising differs from previous models (as above), this Scarlet Pimpernel of corporate speech gave another master class in evasion: “This is commercially sensitive and as such we’re not able to comment. However, the purpose of the WHSmith Local trial is to review all aspects for WHSmith and the franchisees.”

In one final attempt to really engage this stone of an interviewee from which I so desperately wanted to draw blood, I quizzed them on the cold hard results of the franchising trial so far. To which they replied: “It’s far too early to comment with only two stores currently open, however customer feedback has been positive.”

Will I be doing my Christmas Shopping at WHSmith this year? – I couldn’t possible comment.