WH Smith lets charity muggers in store - but why?

Most companies shift towards a more ethical outlook in the hope that it will boost their popularity, but WH Smith has taken the unusual step of potentially annoying customers in its attempt to do the right thing.

According to Retail Week, the stationery and books super-chain is running a trial in a London branch that lets charity fundraisers – the type who lure you in with a friendly “hello” on the pavement and before you know it you’ve signed up to a £20 a month direct debit – into its stores.

But it is a truth universally acknowledged that those fundraisers, otherwise known as “chuggers”, an abbreviation of “charity muggers,” are seriously irritating. You wouldn’t be frowned upon in polite society for crossing the road to avoid them.

So why is WH Smith doing it? Isn’t it risking deterring customers from its stores, sending them running for refuge into the nearest Waterstones or Ryman and  driving out potential sales?

Well, according to Retail Week, “WH Smith declined to comment on any commercial aspects of the relationship, but the Red Cross [the charity being fundrasied for in the trial] states on its website that the process of ‘private-site fundraising’ is carried out by external agencies on its behalf and that those agencies pay a fee to operate on private sites such as shops.”

Is this unusual move all about the cash? And if so, are WH Smith trying to bury a nice little side earner under the guise of do-gooding? That would be a bit manipulative, wouldn’t it?

Most importantly, as a retailer or any other type of business, you must always, always prioritise your customer. Yes, charity is great. But it should be done in an non-intrusive way, not rammed down people’s throats.

Consumers don’t want to be forced into handing their money over to charity. Ethical business works much better when donations are coming out of the business’s pocket. That way the customer feels they’ve made a difference, without being pressured into it, and still getting the nice self-satisfied I’ve-just-bought-something-for-myself buzz at the same time. And they’ll respect you business’s ethics more, too.

From a commercial point of view, it’s hard to imagine that WH Smith will earn enough from the fundraising agency paying for a presence in its branches to compensate from the decrease in custom it risks.

All in all, this is looking like a pretty misguided move.

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