Back in the 1980’s when I was a lad, BHS was one of those stores my mum found a reason to go in to more or less every weekend. It was on a route that included the likes of C&A, Allders and M&S (spot the odd one out!). I never really understood it at the time; it was just what she did!
Anyway, fast-forward three decades and you can still see what a BHS looked like in the 80’s. Just pay a visit to one of its stores today. Try the one on St. Peter’s Street in St Albans, for example. I did just that a couple of weeks ago and it was a journey through time. It was like one of those living history museums, with actors demonstrating what ‘traditional’ retail would have looked like back then. It was interesting – briefly – even fascinating for a short time, but I certainly had no intention or desire to buy anything. That, clearly, is a big problem if you are in the business of retail.
Of course, it is very easy to pass judgement from the outside and there seem to be many questions for the company’s owners to answer. That aside however, this collapse has been a long time in the making and it seems very little was done to arrest the decline or improve the company’s fortunes. More than £700m in non-pension related debt does not creep up overnight.
So what on earth has been going on there from a trading perspective since Mr Green bought the chain sixteen years ago?
Questions without good answers
Well, there were probably a lot of questions asked around the boardroom table. Questions like who is our target shopper and who do we appeal to most? Or who are our main competitors? Or even what does a BHS ‘store of the future’ look like in one, three, or five years’ time? Regrettably, there probably have not been enough good answers to those questions. Instead, there is likely to have been a perception within the organisation that it had broad appeal to many customer groups. In reaching that conclusion, BHS basically ensured it was of no relevance to anyone. The stores have essentially been draped in a cloak of mediocrity for the last 15 years that has obscured them from most people’s vision.
As for competitors, one suspects that rivals were on all corners of the high street and beyond. E-commerce specialists, fast-fashion newcomers, discounters, high-end boutiques. You name it; I bet someone called it out as a threat that needed a response. Cue pandemonium, leading to confusion and complexity as teams lurched from one initiative to the other in a futile bid to defend their territory. Competition can indeed come from many quarters, but if you spend your time obsessing over others’ strategies, instead of the trends that are driving them, you will never have a clear vision of your own. Shoppers will simply pass you by.
What about that store of the future? Well, any punt on the future is part science and part art, but it also requires the acceptance of some degree of risk. As many will attest however, when the chips are down in an organisation, any level of risk, however small, can appear enormous. The fear of a quick, calculated failure often weighs more heavily than the horror of a slow, painful demise. As a result, we will probably never know if there was a blueprint for an innovative BHS in the year 2020. Of course, we do know that a change of logo does not really exemplify the kind of ‘test and learn’ mentality retailers need to exhibit in the second decade of the 21st century.
Data and the future
Underpinning all the questions and challenges at BHS would have been data, but I doubt there was too little of it. In fact, I imagine it was the opposite. Too much information and none of it really helping the cause. Retail has always been about keeping things simple, but modern retail is also about making choices. Nowadays, retailers can take the guesswork out of their businesses using systems that deliver real-time, up-to- the-minute information. There is no need to wait for aging data to churn through a heap of archaic platforms and then find it is too late to respond anyway. Get this right and you are on the track to lower IT costs, better processes and more focused, more engaged employees. If BHS had been able to strip out the data noise and focus the whole business on achieving a small group of core targets, then maybe things might have turned out differently.
The history books will say 2016 was a key year for BHS, but in reality the chain went under a long time ago, it is just no one told BHS. Hopefully for those working on the shop floor, something can be salvaged from this mess, but the big question is how many more will suffer the same fate, putting more livelihoods in jeopardy? How many more retailers will sleepwalk into oblivion before the lights come on and the big decisions-makers stand up and earn their money?
Shoppers have high expectations of retail. They want anything, anytime, anywhere, but if you cannot even get close to that, they will not get close to you, your brand or your shopping experience.