Wednesday, 2 November 2011

WH-at a Dump?

What’s the scariest thing that can happen to you whilst walking down the High Street? Get caught by 15-year old Trick or Treaters, who are actually topical muggers? Seeing someone in a scary Halloween mask and then tragically realising it’s just your own reflection in a shop window? Meeting Boris Johnson on the campaign trail? – Something which incidentally I have seen, fortunately I was looking down from the top deck of a bus, so was protected. Though saying that I am presuming he was campaigning for votes, for all I know he was flailing around the High Street asking people to tell him where his feet were. Going off on a tangent at this early stage, a couple of months back did you get a letter from him entitled Tell Boris What You Think?

The essential point of it seemed to be a survey that you could fill out about London so he (and by he, I mean someone else) could collate the results into useful sound bites saying how well he is doing. For example Question 4c) read “Since being elected, Boris Johnson has quadrupled London’s rape crisis provision. Do you support his efforts to increase support for victims of rape?” Given the wording of this question, it’s almost implicit that every single respondent, bar Julian Assange, would tick the yes box in response to this question. Thus generating the impressive but entirely fabricated soundbite, that 99.9% of Londoners support Boris Johnson’s effort to tackle rape.

As a legal aside I should point out that Julian Assange has never been proved guilty of rape and I am sure he is a very nice man in person, though I wouldn’t trust him with my diary.

What puzzled me is that presumably Boris’s team of advisers helped him with this letter, otherwise it would have probably be written on the back of a telephone box and hand delivered by him on his bicycle. So surely they could have got to him pose for a better photo than this.

Here it looks like he’s fallen through a hedge backwards and then is surprised by his own existence. Perhaps he is genuinely surprised by the fact that we are still yet to realise he doesn’t know what he’s doing? But surely his advisers could have got a photo where he looks a bit less moronic, or were they worried if they did, we wouldn’t recognise him?

Anyway back to the point, the scariest thing that can happen when walking down the High Street is to accidentally walk into WHSmith having forgotten what an absolute abomination of a shop it’s become. This keeps happening to me, I merrily walk into the shop expecting to find something nice in there that I want to buy and as soon as I enter the repressed memory that it’s actually turned into a downmarket version of Poundland floods back (without the one redeeming quality that everything in there is a pound).

I’m sure not that long ago it used to be a decent shop, with its random but eclectic mix of stationary, greetings cards, books, magazines, music and videos. An odd combination that I’m sure were it ever to be pitched on Dragon’s Den today would be laughed back into the entrepreneur’s face with all the sour disgust the overly shouldered Cruella DeVille look-a-ike could manage (seriously if you’re struggling for inspiration this Halloween then you’ll find no concept more scary than going dressed as her). However odd a mix of things it may have seemed it worked. You knew that if you were going for a particular book, magazine or a good selection of birthday cards you’d find it. But with the pressure of the internet and supermarkets cashing in on those markets WHSmith decided to diversify, unfortunately no one seems to be quite sure into what it diversified. It seems to have turned itself into Woolworths except only stocking the rubbish tat you’d pass by on the way through Woolworths to get something more useful like some clothes pegs or a grill pan.

Nowadays in WHSmith you can pick up Adopt a Polar Bear Kits, enough chocolate to sink a battleship and Henry the Hoover wind-up toys but you’d be hard pushed to find that book or DVD you’re looking for. In fact the DVD selection in their Oxford Street store looks like one you’d find in a service station on the M4. As in, containing five titles, three of which you already have and the other two are so awful that even if the only other thing in the world to watch QVC’s Christmas in March Shopping Spectacular, you’d still find the DVD perfectly encased in it’s shrink wrap on your shelf.

For those of you who haven’t had the misfortune of visiting a branch of WHSmith recently here’s a step by step guide of what to expect:

Firstly you’ll turn up and the store will be closed. Like it or not opening hours have been lengthening in recent times, and whilst the rest of the High Street has embraced this as an opportunity to sell more goods at more convenient times, WHSmith has not. The branch right outside the busy Brixton Underground Station, perfectly poised to capitalise on the rush hour footfall is only open 9-5. This coupled with the staff’s eagerness to pull the shutters to the store down and stop people entering 15 minutes before closing all but guarantees you won’t get in (I mean seriously how long do they think it takes to browse the four books and one pen set and decide none of it’s for you – no one could possibly spend 15 minutes in the store, discounting queuing time). Still count yourself lucky, at least the store’s still there. In the time it took Paperchase to refurbish and reopen the old branch of WHSmith that closed down at Clapham Junction Station, the WHSmith website has not managed to remove it as “the nearest store to my current location”, which is annoying if you made the trip specially.

Should you manage to miraculously arrive during the brief window of opportunity provided by 1970s opening hours, you’ll find the shelves stuffed with things you’ve always known you’ve never wanted. With magazine racks cleared to make way for Pic N’ Mix and the stationary section so small you can blink and accidentally walk through it, there’s limited chance that you’ll be bothered by the next point, and that is queuing at the till.

I reasonably regularly visit the Oxford Street store, as it’s close to my place of work, and despite being located on the busiest shopping street in the country; there are only ever two members of staff on the till. So unchanging is this situation I can identify them on sight. It’s always the exact same two people on the tills, except at busy times of course when one of them’s on lunch. Consequently the queue snakes on and on through the store like the polling queue in the Syrian election, although of exceptionally less historic note:

Despite this there’s always another member of staff pointlessly stacking the shelves or faffing with something else right next to you as you queue for seven hours, oblivious to your plight. Whilst in the massive queue pictured above in Brixton branch, rather than helping out the nearest member of staff was attending to this display:

I’d argue surely the more current matter at this time, given the 55 shopping days to Christmas, would be the queue, not the 3 for 2 wrapping paper stand. Though admittedly I should have picked some up, as by the time I left got to the head of the queue there were only two shopping days left until Christmas.

Should you survive the Herculean task of getting to the front of the queue, regardless of who you are and what you’re buying, you will always be offered a bottle of mineral water, bag of mints, or a chocolate bar the size of a double duvet for just a pound. Yep it’s equal opportunities in WHSmith you will be actively encouraged to become obese regardless of race, gender, sexuality or social standing. I should imagine if an armed gunmen held up one of their branches, as the cashier loaded the contents of the till into the bag of swag they would utter the immortal line “would you like a bar of Dairy Milk for just a pound” before proceeding to give the robber a receipt buried in amongst a thousand bloody money off vouchers. For the love of God stop giving these out, shocking as it may seem one visit to your store was enough, without thrusting a Yellow Pages thickness worth of money off vouchers encouraging me to return into my hand as I’m trying to leave the store. Stop doing this immediately. I suppose at least they’re not for Boots No. 7 range. I mean seriously do I honestly look like the kind of person who would want to buy that.

In response to the horrendously long queues, WHSmith management have come up with two plans to try and address this problem. Firstly they’ve opened up branches of the Post Office within their stores, so that by comparison their own queues look short. If WHSmith are looking for ideas to make money, why not set up a mini one of your travel branches of WHSmith (like the kind you get at airports and railway stations) so that people intending to queue for the Post Office can purchase sweets, a book, bottle of water and a crossword magazine to get them through the long haul economy class only queuing system operated by the Royal Mail. The second plan is the introduction of self-scan tills, these are tills where you the shopper both purchase and weigh your shopping. Already popular on the High Street these tills are part of the ongoing campaign to outsource customer service, as should you want anyone to answer a question or be polite to you in a High Street store, you are now expected to ring head office. However these aren’t popular with all customers, as a woman behind me in the queue who was brave enough to cause a fuss (rather than cowardly just grumbling about it under their breath, leaving the store vowing to never come back, only to return the next day and rant about in their blog) pointed out. When questioning a member of staff as to why they wouldn’t open the till and she had to serve herself, they replied that “the tills were only to be opened in an emergency”. An emergency, really? I suspect that at the moment the East Coast of the United States of America was battered by unseasonal snowstorms and several states declared a state of emergency, the next step was NOT the opening of WHSmith’s tills. When pressed further on this point by the aforementioned customer, the staff member replied that self-scan tills were “the future”. Which I thought showed a remarkable strength of character as the staff member explained his own inevitable redundancy to a complete stranger, particularly when the customer replied “I’ll probably just shop somewhere else”. Good for her for saying what I chickened out of.

Still I uncharacteristically looked on the positive side, and reasoned that the self-scan tills would be an opportunity to escape the bullshit of the usual “chocolate bar for a pound routine”:

At least I won’t be saddled with a mass of money off vouchers:

OH THAT’S IT! Will this f**king s**t charade never end, I am never ever setting foot in WHShit again…

Of course tomorrow I’ll probably have forgotten this entire rant and will bravely enter the store once more in a doomed attempt to do my Christmas shopping. I hope my family like four kilogram bars of Galaxy chocolate.