So, Here’s My Idea for BHS

I listened to Mary Portas and Waterstones CEO James Daunt discussing what went wrong at BHS this morning. Portas made the point – which she’d previously made in a Guardian interview – that “British Home Stores was not reimagined, and that is its problem.”

I agree.

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The trouble is, BHS’ original position – as a lifestyle retailer offering “good quality, decent stuff for people on a budget” – has been seized by a plethora of newer entrants, from IKEA to Zara and from Primark to Tiger. There just isn’t a place for what BHS has been doing any more: that is, doing “good quality, decent stuff” but without any sort of flair. Today’s consumer wants more.

Today’s consumer has unlimited choice. Today’s consumer wants to be excited, to feel good about shopping in stores that have a clear, differentiated proposition and do it consistently well. Stores that are always a step ahead of the consumer.

So what is my idea for BHS? 

Well, the clue’s in the name: British Home Stores. Yes, it sounds a bit old-fashioned; however that’s because BHS has done little to shift our perception of a brand stuck in the 1970s, or the 1980s at best.

My starting point is that “British Home Stores” could be a blank canvas for a new conceptBritish Retail in department store retailing – a store that literally offers the best British products for your home. Here I agree with Mary Portas when she offers a vision of a market place, showcasing “young British makers or designers” alongside cool fashion at keen prices.

I’d go further however: I’d make BHS a marketplace for only British goods.

I’d turn its spacious, but currently cluttered and dreary stores into an opportunity for the thousands of creative, cool and high quality British makers, designers and small retailers to create the ultimate, British, market.

British Retail 2You only have to visit some of our best street markets in cities and towns across the UK to know that this style of retailing is enjoying a renaissance, with high quality products – from accessories to fashion to furniture – being sold alongside a dazzling array of street food and artisan produce. So why not bring all that together under one roof, and call it, once again, and with pride, “British Home Stores”?

Of course, there are many obstacles in the way of making this vision a reality: British goods are some of the finest in the world, but they are rarely the cheapest. And the model would probably not work everywhere.

Having said that, the only way to innovate successfully is to ensure that the essence of a new concept can be seen and understood, instantly, consistently and compellingly, by its target audience. That means, doing it properly and without compromise.

So, I’d look at the current BHS property portfolio and (as the administrator is doing now) British Retail 3identify the sites with the most potential to continue trading. On a practical note, that would be necessary in any case to rationalise the cost base of the current business. Then I’d work with local business associations, food and craft producer groups, local authorities and local entrepreneurs to populate the remaining stores with the most appealing selection of British brands and British produce ever assembled under one roof.

Obviously, there would have to be a robust business plan, with commercially sensible selection criteria for products and brands, within a carefully researched pricing policy. And the physical stores as they are would have to be transformed. That said, I would look to channel the extraordinary “ingenuity on a budget” I see every day in markets and pop-up shops, making great products look amazing, on a fraction of the budgets demanded by the big retail architects and shopfitters.

So can this be done? 

In the case of BHS, it may be too late – there is a mountain of debt and once the administrator has done its job, the likelihood is that BHS’ store portfolio will have been distributed amongst its High Street rivals. Looking around the retail landscape however, there is a number of brands almost certainly thinking “There but for the grace of God…” – think M&S, think ASDA, think WH Smith – and it seems to me that the High Street consolidation has only just begun.

James Daunt has shown how to restore the fortunes of a High Street bookseller by making it the best at what it does, after a period when Waterstones looked as if it was going to be diluted out of existence. Are there any more struggling retail brands out there brave enough to admit the need for radical change, and bold enough to bring what is happening out on the street to the very heart of the High Street?

I hope so.


Stephen Spencer is a keynote speaker, business coach and consultant, helping organisations create better Customer Experiences to unlock team and profit potential. He has over 25 years’ experience as a leader, trainer and experience developer with some of the UK’s most prestigious Retail, Tourism and Hospitality brands. Sign up for Stephen’s POSITIVE Customer Experience newsletter here.

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