Much of the phenomenal interest in home computers has to do with their exposure in the high streets of Britain, and few chain stores have done as much to promote that interest as W.H. Smith and J. Menzies. This month our roving reporter took a whirlwind trip a round sum of W.H. Smith’s bigger computer shops.

John Rowland the Buying Manager for W.H. Smith, who heads a dynamic young team, says that the home computer has transformed the present-buying market this year. A nice story involves an eight year old computer customer who, annoyed by the proximity of the toy department, asked for it to be moved away so he could concentrate on more serious keyboard matters. The home computer also seems to have broken down what are thought of as traditional socio-economic pigeon holes, which is to say, the North is poor and unemployed and so can’t afford such luxuries.

“Our strongest selling computer shops are in the principal provincial towns,” says John Rowland. “Newcastle, in fact, is the biggest selling shop, but Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester and Sheffield are also very big.” It underlines two points, firstly that there is more unemployment in the North, and games players there have more time on their hands, but secondly, that people in the North have as much interest in computers as anywhere else — perhaps even more. Manchester and Liverpool, for instance, are very important centres of software development, and in each of those cities W H. Smith have busy and well laid out areas devoted especially to computers and software. The Spectrum is the biggest selling item — hardware and software accounting for approximately 45% of the market.

The new W.H. Smith Computer Shop, at London’s Heathrow airport — serving travel-weary computer freaks.

A typically busy day at one of the Computer Shops in a larger WH Smith high street store.

In London the W.H. Smith in Hammersmith (situated in the new shopping precinct) has a large computer shop. Like banks, shops are very much an extension of the manager. At Hammersmith the manager is Jack Cox. Hammersmith was one of the first stores in Britain where W.H. Smith thought of trying out ‘electronic leisure’. Thanks largely to Jack’s efforts it proved to be a rip-roaring success. But Jack isn’t what you would immediately think of as a computer entrepreneur. He happens to be a grandfather, not in the age group normally associated with computer freakism. His grand-daughter is though, and some of her interest has rubbed off so that now Jack Cox is fully fascinated by the subject. The computer shop at Hammersmith is more fully staffed than any other individual department in the shop. He reckons that the thing which outshines their competitors is that they put a strong emphasis on training staff to be helpful. Jack is aware that the most with-it people are the kids. Among his Saturday staff is a youngster who proved to be so knowledgeable that the boy is now training the older staff — including Jack Cox himself.

A wholly new and rather surprising venture is W.H. Smith computer shops in the departure lounges of airports. To date they have units at Terminals 1 and 2 at Heathrow. These have been built with the absolute co-operation of the British Airports Authority and have been going now for three months. Once the go-ahead was given W.H. Smith’s own fitting department moved in and built the purpose-designed units in only eight weeks. They have special glass shutters so that when they are closed at night travellers can still see as much as they can during the day.

The units have proved very successful and receipts are described as “really very good”. There have even been several incidents when an individual has spent over £1000 at a go! The man who has set up and organised these airport concessions is Bill Rowe, but he is now moving on and from March Roy Hawker takes over responsibility. Other airports are under consideration, both W.H. Smith and the BAA convinced that they will do as well in other locations.

It might seem surprising that computer shops at airports should prove so popular, but perhaps a bigger surprise is that a customer profile indicates that a large percentage of customers are businessmen (after all, this is the home computer market). W.H. Smith suspect that there is a large element of ‘daddy’s lies’ behind the claims that purchasers are only getting a machine or software for their sons!

The decision to try out computer shops actually inside the terminal lounges was not taken as a complete gamble. Three years ago W.H. Smith had a small shelf devoted to home computers at Heathrow Terminal 2 and the turn over was phenomenal, so they thought it would be a good idea to expand. It certainly seems to have been!

Nevertheless, there is an awareness at W.H. Smith that the market can be fickle in such areas. Says John Rowland, “If the computer becomes a useful tool then it has a long future. If it’s only used as a toy it’ not so good. The toy market is renowned for its fads.”

Perhaps the growth of educational software will help ensure the future of the home computer. If John Rowland’s experience is anything to go by, the growth of the educational market this coming year is going to be very big. “We are being bombarded by it,” he says. “Software publishers of any size seem determined to bring out educational programs.”

There are, of course, fads in anything and computers may prove to be no different, but we at CRASH believe that the games market is here to stay for a long time, because all sorts of developments are taking place all the while, which will completely revolutionise the games you can buy and the machines you will be able to play them on. Meanwhile, it’s down to the retail outlets to provide the opportunities for you to find what you want — even in those boring minutes before take off at Heathrow! W.H. Smith seem very pleased with their new venture and it’s certainly flying high!