LONDON — British Home Stores, the general merchandise retailer that collapsed into administration on Monday putting nearly 11,000 jobs at risk, is a cautionary tale for British high street retailers who fail to eye the competition — and listen to the fast-changing needs of the customer.
The U.K. brick-and-mortar retail climate is already a cold one, with the unpredictable weather wreaking havoc on clothing sales and shoppers increasingly hunting for bargains online. Terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris have scared locals and tourists alike away from big-city high streets across Europe.
According to the British Retail Consortium and Springboard, U.K. high street footfall declined 3.9 percent in March, following a 2.9 percent drop in February. Shopping centers saw a decline of 3.7 percent in the month.
Many big British retailers now find themselves with expensive rents and onerous leases in a climate that’s also suffering from price deflation on top of falling footfall and tepid demand. They’re also forced to compete with international and homegrown brands that have great economies of scale, diversified merchandise offers and lower prices.
Fast-fashion giant Zara has Zara Home, while Hennes & Mauritz has a broad gifting offer. The British retailer Primark, which offers a wide range of merchandise, undercuts its competitors on price, with some clothing items less expensive than a Starbucks coffee.
Last month, Lord Simon Wolfson, chief executive officer of the publicly quoted British high street giant Next plc, said he fears this year could be the toughest that the retailer, which sells clothing and general merchandise, will face since 2008. He said the fashion clothing sector overall is suffering as consumers prefer to spend their money on restaurants, travel and leisure activities.
Earlier this month, Marks & Spencer plc’s struggling clothing and home division saw sales fall yet again, by 1.9 percent in the three months to March 26. They dropped 2.7 percent on an underlying basis.
M&S’ new ceo Steve Rowe said the company was focusing on “getting even closer to our customers and putting them at the heart of everything we do.” Unlike BHS or Next, however, M&S has a thriving food business, which grew 4 percent in the period and which consistently bolsters sales growth.
On Monday, after a round of last-ditch attempts to plug a 60 million pound, or $86.4 million, gap aimed at keeping the day-to-day business running, the new owners of BHS called in administrators Duff & Phelps, after declaring the U.K. equivalent of Chapter 11. It’s now up to them to sell the company, which has been in operation since 1928.
Even without the fierce competition and a challenging macro-environment, BHS was already stumbling. By the time Sir Philip Green sold it last year for a nominal 1 pound, or $1.50, the company was notching double-digit losses in pound terms. Today, Green remains one of its biggest creditors.
According to the latest accounts filed at Companies House, in the year ended Aug. 30, 2014, sales had dipped to 668 million pounds, or $1.1 billion, with losses widening to 69.1 million pounds, or $114 million, compared with the previous year. All figures have been converted at average exchange rates for the periods to which they refer.
It was never clear how the new owners — a group of entrepreneurs, lawyers and bankers who bought BHS last March — were going to turn the ship around and they were certainly under pressure to do so: BHS stores are fixtures on high streets up and down the country, selling everything from clothing, fashion accessories and gift items to home lighting, bedding and furniture.
Indeed, the British press has called the store’s collapse the Britain’s biggest retail failure since Woolworth’s — once a high-flying competitor to BHS — shuttered in 2008.
Harsha Wickremasinghe, an associate at the M&A and debt advisory firm Livingstone Partners, said he believes the BHS business model was at the root of the problem.
“Its relevance to the current market is unclear — in terms of product range, brand appeal and distribution strategy. These structural weaknesses, coupled with soaring rents, high business rates and pension liabilities, alongside the impact of the National Living Wage, gave BHS little room to maneuver.
“BHS has been a ‘problem child’ of the department store sector for some time and has simply failed to move with the times,” he added. “Its offer lacked any clarity, the brand mainly traded off of its legacy and it engaged in a series of increasingly desperate measures to prolong its existence.
“Whilst rivals such as Debenhams, House of Fraser and John Lewis have all invested heavily in developing their ranges, multichannel capabilities and heavily refurbishing their stores, BHS was left dangerously exposed. Its woes were further compounded by other more focused retailers, such as Primark, chipping away at its soft underbelly — to devastating effect,” Wickremasinghe concluded.
The team at the British retail consultancy Retail Remedy commented on their Web site Monday that BHS failed because it did not adapt. “As nostalgic as any of us might feel towards the brand, BHS needed customers that were shopping elsewhere. BHS lost relevance and the consequences are now apparent,” it said.
Retail Remedy said it is likely the BHS stores will be sold off piecemeal “to be used as strategic sites for other retailers like John Lewis, Sports Direct or possibly Next. Any remaining sites would be closed, and the BHS brand would disappear from our high street.”
The retailer has 164 stores across the U.K., and 74 franchises in 18 countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Malaysia.
On Monday, administrators Duff & Phelps admitted that efforts to raise funds by selling prime BHS property failed to raise enough cash to save the business.
“Consequently, as a result of a lower-than-expected cash balance, the group is very unlikely to meet all contractual payments. The directors therefore have no alternative but to put the group into administration to protect it for all creditors. The group will continue to trade as usual whilst the administrators seek to sell it as a going concern.”
Green was not available for comment on Monday, and a BHS spokesman could not be reached for comment.
To add to its woes, BHS also has a 571 million pound, or $822 million, pension deficit, which will likely be covered by the state’s Pension Protection Fund, and Green.
Over the weekend, BHS owner Dominic Chappell had held talks with potential white knights, including Sports Direct. Green had also tried to find a solution, but all the efforts came to nothing.
Green bought BHS from the-then Storehouse in 2000 for 200 million pounds, or $299.6 million. He ran it alongside his Arcadia Group, which owns Topshop and Topman, Miss Selfridge, Wallis, Evans and Dorothy Perkins. Last year he said he wanted to find a buyer for BHS with a desire to take the company forward. At the time of the sale, Green said the department store chain was being handed over “in a sound financial position with significant cash balances and banking facilities in place.”
Kevin Smith, the former chairman of Retail Acquisitions, the consortium that bought BHS, called the purchase “a fantastic opportunity to breathe new life into this iconic British high street brand.”
He noted the firm would back the existing management and invest in their plan. “We are convinced that with strategic and focused support, we will return BHS to profitability and safeguard the workforce,” he said.