WHSmith: Bad carpets, good business

Though much maligned, WHSmith has found a way of making the best of a bad situation.

by Adam Gale

There’s an established narrative of corporate decline and fall: incumbent grows bloated and stale; innovative, ambitious new competitors seduce its customers, leaving it overstretched; losses mount, debt piles up, talent departs, death spiral ensues.

WHSmith stands as a curious exception to this pattern. It long ago lost its place in customers’ hearts. Its stores have become a byword for shabby un-chic - overpriced, understaffed and adorned with disastrous, tattered carpets that seem to have a life of their own.

Yet every year, WHSmith seems to reports rising profits and rising dividends, largely because of a near-miraculous ability to find new costs to cut. Methuselah-like, it just refuses to die.

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