High Street

Thoughts on the WHSmith and Cult Pens Merger.

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This isn’t my normal sort of post here on The Finer Point. I normally focus on reviews, posts on how I use my stationery and load outs. But I felt I needed to write this editorial piece to share my thoughts on the merger of WHSmith and Cult Pens.

WHSmith is a British high street staple. Most British stationery addicts have a story of buying their back to school stationery from Smiths, deliberating for hours on end on the right pencil case, what pencils they needed, what the right eraser would be. I am no different. I used to love Smiths, spending a lot of my pocket money there and being excited when I saw something new. But Smiths is nothing but nostalgic. Now a trip to Smiths is rare and chaotic. Shelves are stacked high with clutter, navigation is hard work, staff are unhelpful and on each occasion my clarity is left at the door. The stationery section is uninspiring with the standard brands and products that they have always offered. There is nothing new and nothing that opens up the stationery world the consumer.

I had assumed that Smiths were living on their history, still part of the high street but not active. The British public don’t like Smiths and haven’t done for eight years. The acquisition of Cult Pens is a declaration of their commitment to the stationery portion of their business but I am struggling to make sense of this move. I haven’t seen any indication of Smiths commitment to stationery in any way, either in store or online. I haven’t seen them branch out into new areas, offer new product lines that have a proven success. I haven’t found any reason in my three years of running this blog to visit Smiths for a single stationery item. I can therefore assume from my personal experience and active interest in this hobby and community that Smiths haven’t done any of this.

It’s because of this that I am surprised by the Smiths acquisition of Cult Pens. Smiths have done very well out of this, they have acquired the biggest British online stationery retailer. They’ve acquired skills and expertise that they don’t seem to own themselves. But this could all be to the detriment to the consumer, the enthusiast and potentially Cult Pens. We could see them swallowed into the corporate machine and hampered by politics and processes. I have worked in several large corporate companies where ideas are impossible to achieve because the system doesn’t support or allow it. And I don’t seem to be the only person with these concerns, Twitter responses seem to mirror my own, there is a full on Reddit thread and a FP Geeks thread most of which highlight concern.

I hope Cult Pens aren’t stymied by this merger, I hope they are left alone to continue their business in the same vein. I hope that how they work, their helpful and friendly staff, their knowledge of the market, their product offering, I hope that this rubs off on Smiths and the high street brand benefits from this and the consumer notices a change. This seems like a best case scenario which the cynic in me doesn’t think is achievable.

All of this depends on the company’s structure, the position of the Cult Pens staff within Smiths’ organisation. It’s not easy to change an old company, get the buy-in from their existing staff at a corporate level and in-stores. All of this will be a long, slow process full of resistance.

It’s no surprise by my tone and questions throughout this post that I am concerned. I am a fan of Cult Pens and I like that there is a UK company that offers such a broad range of products. I have had nothing but positive experiences with Cult Pens. I think the lure of WHSmiths brand, of marketing support and the promise of growth may have accelerated this acquisition. I am sure there are ideas and plans to grow both businesses, I just hope Cult Pens isn’t absorbed and lost in the corporate world at Smiths and that we lose a well loved small business.