Could design have saved BHS?

As the UK high street stalwart goes into administration, we look at its design history and ask retail experts if it could have been saved.

Image by flickr user Jeff Djevdet
Image by flickr user Jeff Djevdet

UK high street chain BHS has gone into administration this week, with its 174 stores across the country set to close their doors.

BHS was founded in 1928 as British Home Stores by a group of US entrepreneurs who apparently wanted to follow the successful model set by Woolworths.

The business expanded heavily in the 1970s and 1980s, adopting the BHS branding and opening a series of stores in shopping malls and out-of-town locations, as well as the high street.

Millennium Stores concept

In 1995 it launched the Millennium Stores concept, developed with 20.20. The new design work, which launched in Cambridge with a floor-to-ceiling glass frontage and central atrium, was described by BHS marketing director Helena Packshaw as “embracing a whole new approach to space, lighting and colour.”

However, roll-out of the £25m concept was taken over by BHS’s in-house team in 1997 and in 2000 BHS was sold by its owner Storehouse to Arcadia founder Phillip Green for £200 million.

In 2005 BHS resurrected the British Home Stores branding and introduced a new store design created by consultancy Carte Blanche, who reportedly worked with Philip Green’s wife Tina on the in-store look.

Brand sold for just £1

Following a number of management changes and a further rebrand in 2010, Philip Green sold BHS to Retail Acquisitions for a nominal fee of £1 in 2015.

The chain closed a number of stores an on 25 April announced it had gone into administration.

We ask retail design experts where they think BHS went wrong and what could have been done to salvage the former UK high street icon.

“The high street is the most democratic of environments – shoppers vote with their feet. The demise of BHS is a lesson in not putting design and customer experience at the heart of your offer.

The store environment is like stepping back in time, their presence on social media is as uninspiring as their product range and the website is as generic as their identity.

How could they have got it so wrong when the competition are investing in getting right? John Lewis has a dedicated team looking at technology and omni-channel experience, Debenhams is collaborating with influential designers (Jasper Conran vs Holly Willoughby… go figure!) and Zara’s responsive and remorseless speed to market.

Sometimes you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone – sadly not in this instance.”

Stuart Wood, co-founder, Missouri Creative

“The clue to what went wrong is in the name. British HOME Stores. If Arcadia had developed its home product base and not tried to push clothing so heavily then I think that BHS might have stood a chance.

Think about it. They were always known for their lighting offer, there was a really good chance of rivalling IKEA – BHS was on the high street and the Swedes were not. Habitat has never attracted the mass market, which BHS always appealed to.

Design wise? Think Ikea crossed with Crate & Barrel, with a touch of Pitfield.”

Callum Lumsden, creative director, Lumsden

Discover more:

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Hide Comments (4)Show Comments (4)
  • Kirsty Hitchen April 27, 2016 at 10:23 am

    I’m with Callum Lumsden on this, I said the same thing the other day. If they had concentrated more on their homeware they’d have avoided this inevitability. I haven’t purchased anything from the clothing section in BHS since I was at highschool for school uniform…

  • Handy Jay April 27, 2016 at 11:12 am

    I totally agree with you Kirsty, I think it’s such a shame that they allowed their selves to fall so behind. Why was it so hard for them to get an out house marketing team to give the brand and profile a new lease of life? With a rebirth of what was almost an institution, they could have created something beautiful. Instead, we say goodbye to an iconic and familiar high street face.

  • Phil Sootheran May 4, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Sometimes it’s hard for in-house teams to push out and do just that, Handy Jay, especially when you may be pushing against people that don’t always value their own, in-house, teams. I once worked for a large international retail operation that paid an outside agency to design a new look. They never even asked the in-house team, instead prefering the cost and excitement of an agency.

    The look that agency came up with was not fit for purpose, adn we had to deliver this agencies vision with no contact with them, just few style sheets. The process was flawed, even with the best intentions from all sides.

    What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t always be so quick to blame the marketing teams/pr/design teams. They answer to others, who have the final say. (That’s not to say I know what happened in BHS, other than it failed to be relevant to me about 15 years ago).

  • Andrew Pretty September 2, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    Yeah great design could have saved BHS if and its a big if, there was the willing investment behind great design. Philip treated BHS as his market stall to rack ’em high and sell it cheap. He simply wasn’t interested in investing. The homeward was a pretty decent and often great, but if you look at brands like IKEA which design, manufacture and retail inovitive products which are sold cheaply and appeal to the masses, well that require massive investment overseas in infrastructure. Ultimately PG just didn’t want to invest and sweated his assets as much as he could.

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