8th April 2016

Another ‘Iconic’ Retailer on the Critical List? Can Ailing High Street Brand BHS be Resuscitated?

Last week’s news about yet another high street ‘icon’ struggling feels like déjà vu. As department store BHS tries to sell off the family silver, its Oxford Street flagship store, you can’t help being reminded of the demise of Woolworth’s. For those too young to remember, good old Woolies was a fundamental part of childhood for those us who grew up in the Seventies. Hard earned pennies were spent at the original Pic’n’Mix and I for one remember the excitement of queuing for the latest Showaddywaddy single (yes, on vinyl). When Woolworth’s stores closed their doors the Nation mourned, but the truth was that people no longer found the concept relevant and had simply stopped shopping there.

The world had changed, people’s attitudes and behaviours changed and Woolworth’s failed to adapt and evolve. The same is true for BHS. And made even more poignant by the fact when BHS was founded in the late 1920s, its American creators modelled it on the roaring success that was Woolworth’s. To survive (and thrive) in today’s fast paced, ultra-competitive market, retail brands must identify their target audience and create a unique and relevant experience for them. This requires sustained investment, something that BHS suffered from a significant lack of.

As part of Philip Green’s Arcadia retail empire, which includes TopShop, Burton and Miss Selfridge, BHS was a cash cow, milked unmercifully until the money ran out. The entire business including around 170 stores in the UK was sold last year for a pound.

By this time BHS had fallen far behind the rest of the high street, let alone the plethora of exciting new retail brands available online. Caught in the shrinking no-man’s land between M&S and Primark, the brand had aged with its customers. BHS became invisible and customers walked on by or clicked elsewhere.

Think about it – when was the last time you went into a BHS store? If you asked the average 25 year old, never mind a fashion conscious teenager, what BHS was, would they have a clue?

The new owners, Retail Acquisitions, face the mammoth task of trying to turn around a brand that has suffered from years of neglect. This requires defining, developing and maintaining a unique customer experience and, just as importantly, telling prospective customers about it. They need to give people reasons to shop at BHS and get customers physically into the stores.

A major refurbishment programme is underway. If you make a concerted effort to step across the threshold you may be pleasantly surprised. There’s a new convenience food offer, improved restaurants and cafes, new signage, displays and merchandising. New clothing ranges are in the pipeline.

The fundamental question remains ‘Who is BHS for and why should they shop there?’ Unless they get this right, no amount of refurbishment is going to convince people like you to go there. BHS will die and take thousands of people’s livelihoods with it.  I wish them luck.

Adele Wilson, Head of Insight and Planning