88 years. 164 stores across the country. Over 11,000 employees. We can throw the facts around, and we can discuss what BHS did, or more fittingly, didn’t do. BHS didn’t change. Or maybe it tried. But not hard or quickly enough. Any observer of the high-street could see the symptoms, we could probably all throw some pointers towards a diagnosis. But treatment itself is much harder to administer.
We know that two overwhelming forces of the recent economic recession and the complexities of the digital world have fragmented behaviours and subsequently consumer routes to market. We’re largely less economically well off than we used to be, making us more fickle and open in our choice of retailer. Indeed, just over 50% of us use three or more channels to purchase, chopping and changing retailer and platform as we go. Both of these macro-trends have radically changed lifestyles and purchasing decision-making.
We also know retail is a tough game. Whilst BHS manoeuvred itself like a 1,000ft aircraft carrier, new agile up-starts entered the market and established players trialled and changed their models and practices to shore themselves up. This further made the BHS way of doing things look like woeful bad management. In a sector that may have changed more in the past twenty years than the previous two hundred, not knowing who or what you represent is a delayed death sentence.
Yet putting a finger on the pulse of the wider direction of change is even more worrying. Bringing ever-shifting consumer insights together with disparate channels into a holistic experience does create greater consumer loyalty and customer share. Yet so many big retailers are struggling to change course quickly enough. What can they do? Aside from using data to create insight and efficiencies, mastering omni-channel approaches swiftly and confidently, is there anything else that the big retailers should think about doing? Well actually, yes.
GET THE HEART RACING
Firstly, get your house in order. The best brands operate around a central truth that responds to a consumer emotional need. They radiate from a central beating heart. What they pump around their ecosystem is a fresh, consistent set of initiatives and communications that are infused with a unique DNA. It makes them unmistakable. Everything they do comes from this heart. It manifests itself as the magic fairy dust that make you recognise a John Lewis TV advert before you know its John Lewis, or the glossy, textured yellow of the Selfridges bag that you would identify without seeing the logo. What the BHS had for the last fifteen years was the antithesis of a heart. It was hollow. A shifting and ever-changing logotype was the surface manifestation of the brand vacuum at the core of the retailer. Like the financial asset stripping that quickened its collapse, it ceased to know whom it represented and what it was offering, lumbering along like an echo chamber of half-baked efforts. With the best omni-channel strategy and insight around, without a unique consumer proposition on which to base your actions, you’re at risk of drifting into indifference. And quickly.
PUMP BLOOD TO EVERY MUSCLE
Secondly, own-labels should be playing a wider role in brand creation. The emotional space held for the big multi-retailer master brands can, if harnessed correctly, create a clear halo effect on product. National affection for the likes of M&S, Argos and House of Fraser has built up from decades of interaction. No one wanted Woolworths or BHS to fail; we just needed them to move with the times and give us something we couldn’t find somewhere else. Online platforms such as Amazon or ASOS can undercut a Harvey Nichols or Debenhams on, say, a food blender or a pair of jeans. But that doesn’t necessarily mean retailers should retreat to a defeatist position and stay there. What they should be seeing is the value of boosting investment in clearly defined own-labels that can compete convincingly against their branded competition on the shop floor, by filling them with the DNA we - should - already identify with.
Aside from the ability to leverage existing emotional resonance, own-labels also give retailers the exclusive advantage to sell a particular product, in whatever format and on whatever platform they choose. They needn’t been seen as the ugly sister, the inferior choice with the cheaper price point. Big supermarkets are a promising indicator in this sense, with the majority of consumers having come to consider mid-tier own-label products to be of the same quality as brands, with 14% actually considering them to be better. If I have reverence for Harvey Nichols store windows or John Lewis’ customer service, then why not for its own-label jeans or blender? It shouldn’t be a quantum leap.
PUT ON YOUR BEST PARTY DRESS
Finally, with the physical space multi-retailers command on high-streets up and down the country, there’s already been much made of the opportunity to redefine shopping as an ‘experience’ to bring back customers to the floor. The dowdy rows of clothing, fluorescent strip lighting and bad signage did little to make BHS feel like anywhere other than a retail dystopia. In reality, the high-street has moved a long way from this model, even if digitalisation has made both selling and purchasing more fragmented. But it hasn’t killed off physical space; it’s simply that the floor’s role has changed. We now go to there to feel fully immersed, to be spoken and interacted with, to engage our senses in ways a HD screen can’t always accommodate. This isn’t a fallacy. Multi-store retailers should and are looking at changing patterns to reimagine what the store floor represents. They should remember that by using their unique DNA, they can make their shop floor a destination that embodies their customer, that’s different to their competitors, that surprises and delights.
So, if it’s a case of considering where to spend budgets, then of course improving back-end logistics for implementing omni-channel approaches and understanding the shifting sands of customer-type is important. Its definitely part of what’s required to fight the gale force winds of economic and social volatility. But to me, taking more active, central brand ownership and getting to the heart of what you stand for above all else seems like the strongest way to try and redraw the shop floor in favour of the multi-retailer.