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WH Smith sets sights on becoming portal

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The UK high street's biggest newsagent, WH Smith, refused to confirm today whether its decision to buy new-media company Helicon Publishing Group was part of a wider strategy to create a new UK portal around its Internet Bookshop Web site. News of the £5.6 million acquisition -- along with a report that the newsagent is considering starting its own free Internet access service in an attempt to mimic the success of Dixons' Freeserve -- helped push shares up 82 pence in early morning trading. Earlier this week, Smiths revealed it had been briefing investment companies that it was ready to exploit its brand on the Web through the Internet Bookshop, which it acquired last year for £9 million. Speculation that Smiths is ramping up its online activity was further fuelled as executives held a series of high level talks this week to plan for the future. The company refused to disclose any of these closely guarded details but now that the Helicon deal has been made public, it appears Smiths has finally decided to take the Internet seriously. A representative of Smiths said the company was looking to sell a number of products and services online, not just books. But critics have been quick to attack Smiths' actions as too little too late, quoting a report published last week by Fletcher Research which warned that UK companies were in danger of losing out to US companies when it comes to online trading. But Debbie Robinson, who runs Internet Bookshop, said this was nonsense and that the company was one of the top two book e-tailers in the UK. Given there are only two big UK online booksellers, that's not much of a brag, however. "WH Smiths is well placed to take its brand onto the Net and is perfectly positioned to give the UK market what it needs," she claimed. "Smiths is a terrific brand and it is not limited to simply selling books," Robinson continued. Over the last six months the Internet Bookshop has doubled its customer base and its turnover is four times bigger today than the same time last year. ®

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