How much money can WHSmith squeeze out of its poor, neglected stores? Its annual results, released this morning, paint a familiar picture of bumper profits on the back of stagnant sales. It's hard to see how this magic trick can continue forever.
The newsagent-cum-stationer's figures aren't awful on the face of things. Though its like-for-like (LFL) sales are totally flat, total revenues are up 1% to around £1.2bn and pre-tax profits have leapt by 8% to £121m. But the numbers portray a business of two halves.
While LFL sales in the company's travel division, which includes its outlets at train stations, airports and hospitals, were up by 4%, LFLs at its high street stores, where it doesn't have a captive audience, are down by 3%. And little wonder – you would have to be trapped in an uninspiring departure lounge or on your deathbed to relish a visit to one of its increasingly shabby shops.