WH Smith sales soar past pre-pandemic levels thanks to airport stores

At least someone is doing WELL out of the airport chaos! WH Smith sales soar past pre-pandemic levels with sharp increase at travel stores as holidaymakers return to international flights and commuters return to the office

  • WH Smith said its overall sales were up 107 per cent on pre-pandemic levels
  • Its travel stores, at airports, train stations and motorways were up 123 per cent
  • Chain has stores in 29 UK airports and in more than 100 airports internationally

WH Smith has seen sales soar thanks to a ‘particularly sharp recovery’ at its travel stores following the revival of international flights and the return of the office commute. 

It comes after months of travel chaos have seen thousands of travellers spend much more time at airports than usual, as they arrived extra early to avoid the hours-long queues and faced painfully-long delays and cancellations. 

Meanwhile the number of passengers travelling through the likes of Heathrow in May increased by eight-fold compared to last year, when Covid travel restrictions were still in place. 

Millions more workers have also begun commuting again as they are increasingly asked to return to the office, providing higher footfall at train stations and motorway services – although the number of people working from home (WFH) remains higher than before Covid. 

WH Smith said its total sales were up 107 per cent on pre-pandemic levels over the 15 weeks to June 11, with travel sales – meaning stores in airports and train stations – up 123 per cent over the same period. 

While its travel stores are booming, its high street trading reported a slowdown to 79 per cent of 2019’s levels over the same 15-week period.

WH Smith said its total sales were up 107 per cent on pre-pandemic levels over the 15 weeks to June 11, with travel sales – meaning stores in airports and train stations – up 123 per cent over the same period. (Stock image)

It comes after months of travel chaos have seen thousands of travellers spend much more time at airports than usual, as they arrived extra early to avoid the hours-long queues and faced painfully-long delays and cancellations. (Long check-in queues at Manchester Airport this week)

The London-listed firm highlighted that this included a negative impact from its Funky Pigeon online greeting cards business which saw orders halted by a cyber attack.

The retailer, which sells everything from books and magazines, to food, drink and stationery, has branches in 29 UK airports and in more than 100 airports internationally. 

It also boasts 120 stores at train stations across the UK and Europe and more than 125 franchises operating at services on Britain’s motorways.  

The retail firm told shareholders on Wednesday that it now expects annual trading to be at the top end of analyst expectations.

Its sales boom has been buoyed by expansion in the travel sector, having purchased US-based airport technology retailer InMotion in 2018.

The group added that it is due to expand further across the travel retail sector, with agreements on 125 new stores which have yet to open.

‘In addition, there are a large number of ongoing tenders across our markets,’ the company added.

Rail stores also reported a recovery in trade as more people return to offices and spend more time commuting, although these sales on their own remained below pre-pandemic levels.

The number of passengers passing through Heathrow Airport continues to rise as it emerges from the Covid pandemic. 

A total of 5.3million holidaymakers travelled through the west London travel hub in May, representing a 1.1million increase compared to March – and a staggering eight-fold surge compared to May last year, when Covid restrictions were in place. 

It opened its Terminal 4 for the first time in two years on Tuesday in a bid to cope with the summer surge in bookings. 

In a statement, WH Smith said: ‘While the broader global economy remains uncertain, the group is well positioned to capitalise on the ongoing recovery in our key markets and take advantage of the many opportunities ahead, including the 125 new stores won and yet to open, and our new store formats and category development across multiple geographies.

‘Travel continues to perform strongly across all three divisions and we expect this to be maintained into the peak summer trading period.

‘As a result, we now anticipate the full year outturn to be at the higher end of analysts’ expectations.’

Other airport retailers are also reporting gains, with Dufry, which runs World Duty Free at Heathrow, reporting 73 per cent of its 2019 European sales in the first quarter of this year. 

It enjoyed an overall boost of 144 per cent compared to last year, while its European arm enjoyed a 283 per cent surge in sales, making it the best performing region. 

CEO Julio Diaz said last month: ‘Comparing February year-to-date and April year-to-date, Dufry’s turnover has more than doubled. 

‘Within EMEA (Europe), the best performing region has been the Mediterranean, but also Southern Europe and the UK have significantly progressed.’ 

It comes as airlines were told last night to ensure the recent ‘unacceptable scenes’ at British airports do not drag on into summer.

The regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and the Government urged carriers to ensure planned flights are ‘deliverable’. 

The warning came as consumer group Which? said firms were ‘blatantly flouting’ passenger rights through practices such as taking bookings for flights which may not be able to run.

Tens of thousands of passengers have been affected by flight cancellations and long queues at airports in recent months, particularly during Easter and last month’s half-term school holiday.

The disruption has been blamed on aviation firms struggling to recruit enough staff to cope with demand for travel after thousands of jobs were cut during the pandemic.

A joint letter from the CAA and Department for Transport said schedules should be ‘resilient for unplanned and inevitable operational challenges’. Air industry representatives told the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy committee that staff shortages may not be fixed by the summer.

It came as easyJet revealed it is taking four weeks longer than normal for new cabin crew recruits to receive security passes because of delays in references for people who have had so many different jobs in recent years.

The airline said it was taking about ten weeks pre-pandemic to get ID passes, but this was now at 14 weeks due to a requirement for potential staff to obtain references for all the jobs they have done in the past five years.

Elsewhere, rail bosses are expected to warn commuters not to travel by train during the most disruptive strike action in more than 30 years next week. 

Members of the RMT union at Network Rail and 13 train operators are to strike on June 21, 23 and 25 over pay, while the RMT and Unite are also striking on London Underground on June 21 in a separate row over jobs and pay. 

Southeastern, which runs trains between London, Kent and East Sussex, has now issued a map showing what limited services will be running during the period of industrial action on June 21, 23 and 25

Train operating companies are expected to instruct customers to avoid travelling when the strikes begin next Tuesday.

Rail chiefs are understood to be ‘fine-tuning’ a pared-back timetable which could see services cut by up to 80 per cent and only operating for 11 hours, as negotiators grow increasingly doubtful of reaching a deal before next week’s walkouts.

Industry sources told the Telegraph that operators were under substantial pressure from ministers to avoid putting out ‘do not travel’ notices because Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ‘doesn’t want to give in to the union’.

Planned rail strikes during ‘summer of discontent’ 

  • June 21: RMT and Unite strike on London Underground
  • June 21, 23 and 25: RMT strike on Network Rail and 13 train operators
  • June 26: Aslef strike on Hull trains
  • June 28-29 and July 13-14: Aslef strike on Croydon Tramlink, London
  • From July 25: When Network Rail strike action could take place if TSSA members vote for it in ballot

But a source added: ‘We will have to tell [passengers] not to travel because if we have people turning up as normal to stations expecting to get on a train, we will have a major problem.’

Meanwhile, union sources told the newspaper the entire network would have to shut down during the strikes for safety reasons because of the number of safety-critical staff going on strike.

Southeastern and Northern have both already instructed customers to avoid travelling next week and it is understood South Western will issue similar advice today while more are expected to follow suit before the strike.

Up to 50 per cent of services may run on key inter-city routes such as the east coast and west coast main lines on which signalling has been automated, under emergency plans for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday next week.

But these trains will only run between 7.30am and 6.30pm and rural areas will be cut off because they have no automated signalling and rely on signallers from the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union who are walking out.

Passengers who choose to travel run the risk of being left stranded if their journeys involve a station change and they leave it too late in the day, because the last trains to cities such as Glasgow from Birmingham or further south are likely to leave in the early afternoon.

It threatens to cause chaos for millions, affect key events such as Glastonbury and Armed Forces Day and even stop students attending school or sitting exams. 

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