You know those healthporn documentaries that try to shock us with the fact that obese people are, actually, malnourished? Really? All those 12 inch meatball subs, and aqualungs of Pringles don’t add up to a healthy diet? You do surprise us Jeremy Vine. Now roll Panorama credits.
Well, Liverpool ONE’s in danger of becoming its mall equivalent. All those lovely shops. And nowhere to buy the New Yorker.
We know. It’s hardly up there with war, pestilence and famine – but, come on. Enough of the couture-to-go, what happened to the culture in this brave new city centre?
SevenStreets has spent a fruitless – yet illuminating – couple of hours on the phone to two Press Officers. These people get paid for what they do. But, ultimately, they don’t say anything…
Here’s the sorry story…
The best shop in Liverpool ONE? That’s a tough call. There are many. The worst? Hands up who’s thinking WH Smith-shaped thoughts right now?
Liverpool’s Church Street branch used to be a flagship: rows of niche periodicals, towers of board games, enough watercolour kits to paint a sinking ship…you remember it well, as we do.
Its replacement? A kiosk with flooring usually saved for NHS geriatric ward bathrooms – a rat-run of colliding, confusing and downright dangerous gondolas, shelves and promotional bins. Full of tat. Walk in there and it’s like you’re the ball-bearing in a labyrinth game: will you successfully navigate a path to the check-out without knocking over a leaning tower of Ricky Tomlinson books?
Actually, no, you won’t. Because, since WH Smith is now smaller than even Chester’s (in fact it’s smaller than Crewe’s) branch, it simply doesn’t stock the same selection of magazines the old store carried. We’ve a horrible feeling this store was ear-marked for platform two of Llandudno Junction station, but by some horrible clerical error landed in the heart of one of the UK’s biggest and busiest cities.
Alone amongst the shuffle-round of city centre shops, the move to Liverpool ONE was a definite demotion for WH Smiths. Can you imagine how the staff felt?
“Hey, do you want the good news, or the bad news…” the manager must have said. “The good news is we’re moving to Liverpool ONE….”
So you’ll just keep walking to Waterstones – where they’ve a great selection of art and culture magazines on their ground floor. You’ll buy one there, and have a nice coffee upstairs, while you’re chuckling away at some WASPish short story in a US periodical.
But no. Now you can’t do it because, well, because downstairs at Waterstones has been turned into a fancy wrapping paper shop. And it’s called Paperchase…
“What happened to your magazines section, is it upstairs?” SevenStreets asked the sales assistant.
“No, it’s gone. We had to get rid of them to make way for Paperchase,” she says.
“But that’s terrible.”
“I know. We’ve had a lot of complaints.”
Cut to phone call to Fiona Allen, Press Officer at Waterstones.
“What’s happened? You’ve got rid of the magazines and periodicals in Liverpool ONE to make way for fancy wrapping paper,” we tell her.
“No,” she says, “this has nothing to do with Paperchase expanding. We think it’s important that every store offers a balanced selection, and one that our customers tell us they want. We’re just reflecting that.”
“But all wrapping paper, and no magazines? That’s not balanced,” we say.
“Like any good retailer, we have to take a holistic approach. We’re all about serving the customer. In some stores, we’re increasing the magazines we sell,” Allen says.
“But have you asked Liverpool customers? We know plenty who feel short changed by this,” we say, “Can we get a quote from the manager at the store?”
“No,” Fiona says. On both counts. They’ve not asked the customers directly. And all press enquiries must go through her. “But, I must repeat – this has nothing to do with us needing extra space for Paperchase.”
We try to tell Fiona about the long tail. About building audiences at the margins. About how thin magazines are. They really don’t take up too much space at all – why not just round up the best sellers into a corner?
“We’ll always revisit this if we get feedback saying our customers miss the magazines,” she promises. We wrote it down. We’ll call her back.
We revisit the store the next day. A young chap is serving.
“Why aren’t you selling magazines any more? You’re the only place in the centre that sold decent mags.”
“I know,” he says, looking so crestfallen we almost want to send him a Get Well Soon card. It would be so easy to do. We’re surrounded by 14,000 of them, “We had to make room for Paperchase,” he says.
We return home. And we call up WH Smiths’ Group Communications Executive, Katie Prout.
“Why is your shop so rubbish?” we ask (we’ve seen Panorama. We know how to duke these people out.)
“Although smaller in size the resited WHSmith store still sells an extensive range of magazines, books, stationery and cards, as well as having the full range of Post Office services on offer,” the Group Communications Executive says.
“But you don’t sell nearly as many specialist or niche magazines. It’s just not good enough – you sell better stuff in Chester. And Crewe,” we half-cry.
“The range reflects the products which are most popular with our customers, and our staff are always happy to order any products which are not available in the store.”
They’re not. We tried. We asked the manager if we could order a magazine. He said no. He said this while he was erecting a pile of Katie Price books.
We tell Katie that it’s not just us who miss the old WH Smiths. We’ve had comments on our site, we’ve spoken to our mates. We know the way the wind’s blowing – and we’re here to help. We tell her the new shop is well-nigh impossible for disabled or sight impaired customers to enjoy. Katie doesn’t comment.
There are bigger sites in Liverpool ONE. Heck, even Apple are rumoured to be eyeing up a bigger store up the road (oh, shit, that’s a secret. Oops). Why don’t they just do us all a service and move?
“But we believe that the location, near to bus stops for many of the city’s main bus routes, adds further convenience to customers shopping in WH Smith or requiring the services of the city’s main Post Office,” Katie says, refusing to tackle the thrust of our argument at all.
“We regularly serve 11,000 customers each week in our Liverpool store and we firmly believe that we continue to offer a competitive range of products in our Liverpool store. And I’ve spoken to the managers, and if you’re prepared to take a three-month subscription for any magazine, he’ll be happy to order it.”
Oh God. Was it always this much hard work? Didn’t WH Smiths used to be an enjoyable experience? It’s not a bread shop in Soviet era Russia is it?
Oh, one final question, Katie. Have you been to the Liverpool ONE store?
“I haven’t actually visited that one, no.”