WH Smith high street sales fall over festive period

WH Smith said sales at its high streets stores fell over the festive trading season as the popularity of spoof titles fizzled out.

The book seller and stationery chain said that in the absence of any big new literary trend, sales at high street shops open for more than a year fell 4% in the 20 weeks to 20 January.

“Our stationery and seasonal ranges, including cards and wrap, performed well with good sales growth versus last year,” said Stephen Clarke, chief executive. “Book sales were more challenging due to the decline in spoof humour titles and no new, big publishing trends.”

The retail chain had benefited a year earlier from a comic revival of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, with strong sales of titles such as Five on Brexit Island, Five Give up the Booze, and the Ladybird Books for Grown-Ups series.

WH Smith said in the trading update that gross margins were up over the period, compared with a year earlier but “slightly less than anticipated” as a result of the waning popularity of the spoof titles. Shares fell 5%.

Total sales across the group were flat over the period, after sales in its travel division – which includes shops in airports, motorway service stations, hospitals and railway stations – rose 7% or 3% on a like-for-like for basis, stripping out shops open for less than a year.

The travel division now accounts for almost two-thirds of WH Smith’s annual profit and the retailer is planning to open 15 new shops this year, having recently opened large airport stores in Gatwick and Stansted.

“Christmas was a stationary affair for WH Smith, with sales flatlining across the group as a whole,” said Laith Khalaf, senior analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown. “The newsagent is now a two-tier company, with a high street estate which is withering on the vine, and a travel business which is growing at quite a clip.”

The retailer said it continues to cut costs in high street division and expects full-year savings to be about £12m, slightly ahead of target.