Business development · 27 April 2016

Why the demise of BHS lends an opportunity to Britain’s independent retailers

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Philip Green sold BHS for £1 last year, the chain went into administration this week.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Yet another tower from the skyline that was the British high street has been demolished this week, as British Home Stores (BHS) closed its doors for the last time – entering into administration and putting the livelihoods of some 11,000 UK workers at risk.

The demise of BHS added to an increasingly lengthy list of names that were once synonymous with the bustling British high street, but are now nowhere to be found.

Borders, Blockbuster, Comet, JJB Sports, Zavi and Threshers were all once common features in town centres up and down the country, yet each has met its end thanks to the digitisation of the UK shopping experience and the exodus of consumers to online channels. Shoppers are now far more likely to buy items from their own home than peruse the high street.

The decline and eventual toppling of BHS, however, is similar to the death of the other failed high street behemoth Woolworths in so far as it is a moment few would have imagined. After forming in 1928 with the USP of selling goods that cost less than a shilling (think yester year’s Poundshop) the firm has had a long and rich history.

As recently as 1970, BHS employed 12,000 of the UK workforce, but a series of botched takeovers and restructures throughout the 2000s did nothing to improve its flagging fortunes – a series of events which led to retail tycoon Philip Green selling the chain for £1 last year.

The failure of these high street giants poses opportunities for smaller firms. The UK has a disproportionately high number of small and micro businesses providing personalised products and high quality customer service.

Shopping habits amongst UK consumers are changing and small independent retailers have become more popular than ever. Earlier this year, Business Advice reported on a study which found that one in five people shop with independent retailers more than they did a year ago, rising to 30 per cent amongst 18 to 24-year olds.

If the large retailers continue to fold, independent stores can take the chance to scoop up the business that online retailers like Amazon aren’t able to capture – people still hold value in buying items in-store – purchasing a tangible product from a real person. To make the most of this opportunity, small independent retailers should continue to do what they do best and focus on high-quality products and customer service.

For those small independent retail owners that think they can’t compete, help may be on the way. The government is slowly recognising the fact the makeup of the British high street is changing, and is working with retail leaders and industry experts as well as councils to support local high streets – sharing best practices and developing solutions to get the country’s high streets thriving again. The Future High Streets Forum is one such initiative advising government on short and long-term high street policy.

Much like the death of Woolworths, the fall of BHS represents another huge milestone in the gradual waning of the influence of the British high street. Independent retailers should relish the opportunities this offers as well as acknowledging the threats.

Read more on why independent retailers have become increasingly attractive to UK shoppers.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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