W H Smith plc (known colloquially as Smith's) is a British retailer, headquartered in Swindon, Wiltshire, England. It is best known for its chain of high street, railway station, airport, and now motorway service station shops selling books, stationery, magazines, newspapers, and entertainment products. It was a major distributor of newspapers and magazines (demerged in September 2006 as Smiths News plc), and formerly owned publishing businesses, and a number of other retail chains in the United Kingdom, North America, and the Pacific Rim. It is part of the FTSE 250 Index.
The initial foundations of the business which became W H Smith was the founding of a newsagency service for the public by Henry Everett and William Smith in 1790. However Everett wished to provide an overseas service while Smith wanted to concentrate inland. Eventually this led to a parting of the ways, but each party subsequently follows their chosen path and ideas..
In 1792 Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna established W H Smith as a news vendor business in London. After their deaths, the business — valued in 1812 at £1,280 — was taken over by their son William Henry Smith, and in 1846 the firm became W H Smith & Son when his son, also William Henry, became a partner. The firm took advantage of the railway boom by opening newsstands on railway stations, starting with Euston in 1848. They also made use of the railways to become the leading national distributor of newspapers. The younger W H Smith used the success of the firm as a springboard into politics, becoming an MP in 1868 and serving as a minister in several Conservative governments.
After the death of W H Smith the younger, his widow was created Viscountess Hambleden in her own right; their son inherited the business from his father and the Viscountcy from his mother. After the death of the second Viscount in 1928, the business was reconstituted as a limited company, in which his son, the third Viscount, owned all the ordinary shares. On the death of the third Viscount in 1948, the death duties were so severe that a public holding company had to be formed and shares sold to W H Smith staff and the public. A younger brother of the third Viscount remained chairman until 1972, but the Smith family's control slipped away, and the last family member left the board in 1996.
In 1966, W H Smith originated a 9-digit code for uniquely referencing books, called Standard Book Numbering or SBN. It was adopted as international standard ISO 2108 in 1970, and was used until 1974, when it became the ISBN scheme.
From the 1970s, W H Smith began to expand into other areas of retail. W H Smith Travel operated from 1973 to 1991, The Do It All chain of DIY stores started with a 1979 acquisition, became a joint venture with Boots in 1990 and was sold in 1996. The upmarket bookshop chain Waterstone's, founded by former W H Smith executive Tim Waterstone in 1982, was bought in 1989 and sold in 1998. In 1986 W H Smith bought the Our Price music chain; in the 1990s it also bought other music retailers including the Virgin Group's smaller (non-Megastore) shops. Virgin Our Price was sold to Virgin Retail Group Ltd in 1998.
On April 18 2007, the Post Office announced that 70 of its branches nationwide are to move into W H Smith stores by autumn 2008. The Post Office says all its services will continue to be available at W H Smith.
England and Wales have always been W H Smith's home territory. However, in recent years the establishment of a significant retail presence in Northern Ireland, and Scotland has seen the chain spread UK-wide. In Northern Ireland there is only one W H Smith located in Belfast City centre, thus making it the only store of its kind on the island of Ireland, although W H Smith is opening two further stores in the region, one situated Belfast City Airport and the other at Belfast International Airport. W H Smith are also opening two units at Shannon Airport
W H Smith has also engaged in business outside the United Kingdom. Canadian operations began in 1950 and continued until 1989, although the SmithBooks chain continued to operate there until the late 1990s when it was consolidated with the Coles chain as Chapters; a few shops still retain the name as of 2008. W H Smith also operated stores in the United States from 1985 until 2003, primarily in airports. The company acquired Australian and New Zealand subsidiaries in 2001 which were subsequently disposed of, along with those in in the Hong Kong International Airport and in Singapore, in 2004. The company retains one shop in the centre of Paris, France.
This purchase also cleared the way for W H Smith's retail expansion into Scotland. Prior to the takeover, Menzies' larger Scottish stores (carrying a very similar range of products to High Street W H Smith stores elsewhere) dominated the market, and the latter's presence was minimal.
In the year to 31 August, 2004 W H Smith plc had a turnover of £2,834 million, on which it made a pre-tax loss of £130 million, due to significant "exceptional items" and losses on the sales of subsidiaries. Disposals during the year reduced the group's net assets from £409 million to £256 million. At its December 2004 share price of around 323p, the company's market capitalisation was just under £600 million.
Despite its former claim to be the "World's Best Booksellers", W H Smith has never sought to compete with specialist booksellers in the highbrow and academic markets (such as Blackwell's) or on depth in particular genres (except perhaps for railway-related books for enthusiasts in their railway station branches). Similarly their audio and video departments tend to concentrate on chart pop music and blockbuster films. On the other hand, their large shops typically offer a larger range of specialist magazines than most newsagents.
For many years W H Smith's policy of not stocking the satirical magazine Private Eye, because of the company's fear of being held responsible for any libelous articles it might contain, led to the magazine stigmatising it as "The World's Worst Booksellers" and "W H Smugg". Their shops and distributors now carry the Eye. The original edition of The Life and Times of Private Eye, a compendium of Eye's first ten years, was edited by the publisher to remove a scurrilous item relating to W H Smith's, apparently to improve the chance that Smith's would stock the book. The ploy failed.
In the 1970s W H Smith refused to stock or distribute Gay News, the campaigning newspaper for Gay rights. Eventually they bowed to pressure and now stock a wide range of gay lifestyle magazines.
It also founded two of the UK's earliest cable television channels, Lifestyle and Screensport through its WHSTV division, which were carried on almost every cable system in the UK and Ireland prior to the start of Sky Television. Both channels moved to the Astra 1A satellite used by Sky in 1991 and later floundered due to the increased cable competition. Screensport merged with Eurosport at its relaunch as part of the TF1 Group, and Lifestyle was closed down.