Comment: The digital failure of BHS

Alarm bells rang when, just over a year ago, British Home Stores was bought by Retail Acquisitions ltd. New owner, Dominic Chappell, with his patchy history of business failures and little-to-no retail experience, left city spectators shaking their heads. The fact that the company’s pension deficit outweighed its value in assets also did little to inspire confidence in lenders. The announcement that BHS had gone into administration therefore came as little surprise to most.

One questionable attempt to address this issue was the introduction of a food service offer, which proved to be little more than a window-dressing exercise. And, while the sight lines to sweetie stands have added a splash of excitement for toddlers accompanying mums on towel-shopping expeditions, relying on volume sales of pic ‘n’ mix is hardly a recipe for retail success, as Woolworths discovered in 2008 before suffering a similar fate.

BHS should instead have focused on promoting its most popular ranges, like back-to-school gear. Yet its voice on these key occasions has been rapidly subdued not only by direct rivals, but also by diversifying grocers, translating into a diminishing share. To top it off, BHS homewares have increasingly lost out to discounters like Wilko and Dunelm.

A belated response to digital demands has further compounded its problems, especially when it comes to online execution and fulfilment. A quick look online will tell you that BHS apps score just 3.4 stars on Google Play and 2.5 on iTunes, while recent reviews are generally unfavourable. App usage is also relatively low compared to competitors like Next and M&S. Furthermore, delivery lead times and costs are respectively longer and less competitive.

The retailer’s underperformance online also exposes another underlying issue: its lack of appeal to millennials. Over the last year, a throwback to trends of the nineties saw the return of denim jackets, flannel shirts and hair scrunchies. One would think, given our nostalgia for dated styles, BHS would have shot to the height of fashion. Sadly, BHS entered decline long before ‘Throwback Thursdays’ became a thing.

Despite boasting a number of Arcadia brands, the typical BHS shopper remains more mature and therefore understandably less inclined to the youthful designs of Dorothy Perkins. Meanwhile younger shoppers will head straight to Topshop standalones or bypass the high street altogether in favour of shopping sites like ASOS.

For many digital natives wanting fast fashion solutions, BHS wouldn’t even cross their minds. Little wonder, then, that Sir Philip Green found the business difficult to manage alongside teen favourites Topshop and Miss Selfridge. Yet even the department store’s older audience has moved with the times, abandoning the dowdy designs of BHS own-brand and seeking out value and variety (and finding it) at rivals like H&M and T.K. Maxx.

British consumers are among the most demanding when it comes to multichannel shopping. This means multichannel retailers – particular those heavily weighted towards fashion – cannot afford to slip up in both bricks and mortar and online execution. It is also clear department stores collectively need to do more in order to appeal to their diverse target markets. This means creating brand stories that speak directly to specific demographics and mapping customer journeys – both in store and online – that maximise exposure to complementary categories and encourage add-on sales. In a diluted, deflationary market, retailers need to do all they can to engage shoppers, inspire interest and boost volumes.

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