Coronavirus: WH Smith sees 400% increase in online book sales

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
A WH Smith logo seen at a store in London's Stansted Airport. (Keith Mayhew/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

WH Smith said on Thursday (SMWH.L) that it had seen a 400% surge in online book sales over the past month, as the coronavirus crisis forced the mainstay of the UK high street to shut the majority of its stores.

The newspaper and stationary firm saw an 85% decline in overall sales in April, with revenue from its 599 outlets in airports and railway stations plummeting 91% during the month.

“Since March, we have seen a significant impact on our business as a result of COVID-19, with the majority of our stores closed around the world,” WH Smith said on Thursday (14 May).

Last month, the retailer was forced to seek a cash injection from investors to bolster its balance sheet, raising around £162m ($198m) through a share placing. It also secured an additional £120m credit line from its lenders.

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“We are a resilient and versatile business and with the operational actions we have taken including managing costs and the new financing arrangements, we are in a strong position to navigate this time of uncertainty,” it said.

WH Smith said it was “well positioned” to benefit once things normalised in its key markets.

Around 130 stores located in hospitals across the UK have remained open, while 203 stores with Post Offices across the country continue to provide vital postal and banking services during the pandemic, WH Smith noted.

Before-tax profits, which fell 1% to £80m in the sixth months to the end of February, were only marginally affected by the crisis, WH Smith said.

Underlying profits from its travel division actually rose 11% in the period on a 19% jump in revenue, even as profits from high street trading fell 8%.

"There was very little impact of COVID-19 on our first-half results. However, inevitably the performance in the second half will be very different,” said chief executive Carl Cowling.

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Cowling pointed to investment in WH Smith’s UK travel businesses, as well as its growing international travel division.

In October, WH Smith announced that it was acquiring Marshall Retail Group, a US retailer that operates stores in airports and casino resorts, for $400m (£323m).

The retailer said on Thursday that, following the closure of the deal in the first quarter of 2020, the integration of Marshall Retail Group outlets into its overall operation was “progressing well.”

WH Smith acquired American travel accessories retailer In Motion in 2018 for $198m.

The company said it now has 280 travel outlets in North America.