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WHSmith Plus (Concept)

An augmented reality scan-and-shop mobile app that allows the customer to pay for goods without the need to queue.
My Role(s):

User Researcher, Business Strategist, UX/UI Designer


Tools & Processes:

Design Thinking, Human-centered Design, User Research, Business Transformation, Business Model Canvas, PESTEL Analysis, SWOT Analysis, Personas, User Journey Map, Concept, Prototyping


WHSmith is currently Britain’s largest bookseller, stationer and newsagent and is split into two main divisions: Travel and High Street. WHSmith has grown into the travel industry and the business has seen an increase in year-on-year profits. The travel division has stores set up at train stations and international airports. High Street stores are positioned prominently on most high streets across the UK. Despite the company still making a profit, high street sales are falling.

For this Business Transformation case, I focused on the High Street division of WHSmith and outlined the current climate that the business is operating in. The case for change was highlighted within the division and a proposed business strategy will be implemented over 3 - 5 years, that will help WHSmith High Street stores to hit their targets. The aim is to reinvigorate the trust and loyalty that has been placed in a business that is 75 years older than Canada and truly make WHSmith Britain’s most popular high street stationer, bookseller and newsagent. 

Retail is changing. WHSmith

While WHSmith is still making profits through their Travel division, which makes up two-thirds of the business’ annual profits, High Street sales aren’t doing as well. Increased traffic to the WHSmith website, bad weather and less disposable income for consumers as a result of inflation in a tough retail market has meant that stores are struggling to attract footfall.


The issue with having separate channels is the fear of cannibalisation between channels. Separation creates the “silo effect,” wherein lack of communication or coordination between operations leads to, for example, poor customer satisfaction and a poorly managed inventory, causing loss of sales or erosion of margins.


It was clear to see from the quotes in the previous slide that customers do not view WHSmith in a very positive light. Complaints about a lack of staff presence within stores, the in-store look and feel, despite a refurbishment recently, still feels outdated and doesn’t add to the experience of buying a book. Primary research suggested that WHSmith has not put the customer at the heart of its High Street operations, instead favouring profit margins and revenue. The current strategy in place aimed to make WHSmith the most popular bookseller is not currently working.


In light of these comments, I suggested WHSmith take a more human-centred approach to their stores. A Which? survey in 2013 found that WHSmith received the lowest customer service rating in the UK among its 11,000 respondents. Those customers branded the store “messy” and “expensive”. A second survey in 2014 found that WHSmith once again ranked bottom. Sadly, this trend continued into 2018 and WHSmith were voted the worst store on the high street for a third time.


Based on the research gathered from the user interviews, I came up with the WHS Plus (shortened to WHS+) app concept, an augmented reality scan-and-shop mobile app that allows the customer to pay for goods without the need to queue.


Based on the research gathered from the user interviews, I came up with the WHS Plus (shortened to WHS+) app concept, an augmented reality scan-and-shop mobile app that allows the customer to pay for goods without the need to queue. The Scan & Shop feature uses image recognition to match items on the shelf to the items on the WHSmith retail website, or to scan a new kind of shelf edge label that links to the website. Prices and offers are aligned with those on the website, so customers always get the best deals. No more browsing in-store to buy online!


Then, with augmented reality, users get access to real time product information, where they can check the price, a description of the product, read or write reviews, add it to their basket or use the option to ‘Quick Buy’ the product there and then. By tapping on ‘Quick Buy’ users are asked to scan the product’s barcode and from there, are taken to the payment confirmation page. Within a few taps, the user has used their pre-registered debit or credit to pay for the item(s). Simple!


By asking the customer what they look for in a WHSmith store, WHS+ can tailor specific content based on the things they like. Offers, pre-orders, wayfinding to their favourite products and more can enhance a customer’s shop by suggesting things they might not have been aware of. Machine learning will learn their shopping habits as all of their purchases are recorded securely in their account history and will continuously suggest new things based on their preferences. By collecting a small amount of user data when setting up the app (used specifically for the purposes of nudging them towards these offers), there is very little else the customer needs to provide to get the most out of WHS+. It’s important to note that this data should be used ethically with the express permission from the user, and explained that it will only be used in this way in accordance to the new laws of GDPR.

Push notifications suggest other items to buy based on the user’s purchase history (taken from the account). These push notifications direct the customer to the relevant section in-store where the item or offer is situated. Store security gates will record a customer’s geolocation upon entering the store for wayfinding and also as a way of reducing criminal activity. Upon leaving the store, a customer’s geolocation stops being recorded. In the event of the security gates being triggered, the customer’s location is tracked for longer, allowing the store to follow the customer’s movements. The app would also use geolocation services to personalise the push notifications based on the store, as shown in the image opposite. Other notifications can tell the customer of nearby events, pre-orders based on predefined likes and dislikes and the nearest WHSmith store when entering a new city or town centre.


As shown in these personas, user express needs and desires have been targeted by the WHSmith Plus app, which aims to enhance the experience of shopping in WHSmith High Street stores once more. By streamlining the shopping experience, the WHS+ app aims to reduce the churn rate of customers who feel their time is wasted by queuing up, or not being able to speak to staff for assistance. The app can also be used by staff, so they’re able to offer assistance to customers where they no longer have to stay tethered to a till. This means the employees can have more of a presence on the shop floor while they complete any tasks they might have.


By bridging the gap between High Street stores and online, customers who are already shopping on the high street won’t need to browse the store for their items, and purchase it later online. The WHS+ app sources prices from the website and allows the customer to pay the same as they would from home, with the added benefit of being able to take it home immediately. This would also reduce delivery costs. Customers will also be able to purchase items in a more streamlined way without having to queue up and face being asked if they want any low-cost confectionary, something that most customers I spoke to hated.


Employees working in stores will benefit from the app as well, as they’ll be able to assist customers better. The self-service checkouts will still be there for those customers who are yet to download the app, but they won’t receive the benefits of lower prices and personalised offers, or news of events and pre-orders when walking into the store. The app’s simple UI design means that both staff and customers will be able to use it with minimal difficulties. The staff version of the app could be enhanced in the future to include a contactless payment method, similar to those machines seen in restaurants and bars.


This project highlighted areas that WHSmith could improve on that would drive more footfall into stores. I found that customer satisfaction on the high street was generally low and comments made by past employees and customers suggested that more needs to be done to put people first. More staff, better training, less pressure on customers to impulse buy confectionery are just a few examples to consider.


Another thing I suggested needed considering was the look and feel of the store. In spite of the recent refurbishment to the Holborn store, the signage still feels outdated. WHSmith is the oldest retail chain in the world; why not shout about the heritage more. Capital letters and Gotham font don’t make for a pleasant wayfinding experience. Signs could be in the WHSmith blue and use lower case fonts to guide the customer, not shout at them. The children’s books section also has nothing that would be appealing to children. No bright colours, no book characters, nowhere to sit and read the books. My interviewees said that it was a dull experience.


I recommended that, based on my research, the online and high street experiences needn’t be siloed. Offers and pricing strategies should be consistent across the board if customers are to continue shopping on the high street following Britain’s exit from the EU. Money will not be a commodity for many people and the effects of this are already being felt. Consistent pricing will also rebuild trust in customers and prevent further cannibalisation across the divisions.


I was under no illusions that change would happen overnight. However, by bearing these considerations in mind and by designing for the people who have followed WHSmith up and down the country for two-and-a-quarter centuries, I believe that WHSmith can achieve the mission of becoming Britain’s most popular bookseller and stationer.

The full report for the WHSmith Business Transformation case can be viewed here.

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