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Comment: Digital offers hope for the high street

Kirsty McGregor

Weather is never far from a retailer’s mind – whether they blame it for poor trading or not – but nobody could have prepared for last week’s hotchpotch of sun, snow, rain, wind and thunderstorms. Not sunny enough to buy flipflops and vest tops, nor cold enough to invest in new jumpers and jackets – hopes of a pick-up in trading over the bank holiday weekend were quickly dashed.

In Exeter, where I spent my Saturday afternoon, there was a real mixed bag – at the value end, Peacocks and Next seemed reasonably busy, while House of Fraser’s fashion floors were quiet. There was a buzz on the high street overall, but much of it seemed to stem from queues to get into restaurants for lunch.

For those getting stuck into the weekend papers, one retail story dominated the business sections: BHS. The saga has provided fodder for endless column inches, including a brave account from The Sunday Times’ Oliver Shah of his encounters over the years with an angry Sir Philip Green. Having had my own ear-bashing from Green – in response to asking questions he didn’t want to answer – I can sympathise.

A surprising twist in the BHS story has been Mike Ashley’s revelation that he is interested in buying the business with the intention of keeping all of its staff and stores. It is known the Sports Direct founder wants a department store chain – he has stakes in both Debenhams and House of Fraser – but how could he keep all of BHS’s stores open, given it is a loss-making chain? And what would he plan to do with the business in the longer term?

These are questions that need to be answered before BHS passes into yet another pair of hands. Let’s not forget the recent controversies surrounding Sports Direct’s employment practices: is he really the owner that will bring stability back to BHS? It seems doubtful.

Austin Reed’s recent demise was inevitable and the reasons for it are by now well documented

Nobody wants to see job losses at BHS, but the closure of some of its stores could be timely and provide a welcome boost for their local high streets. Analysts have pointed out the potential benefit of bringing newness to some of these locations. Perhaps it is time to let sleeping dogs lie. 

But let’s not do that for Austin Reed Group, which was being circled by prospective buyers this week. Austin Reed is a very different proposition to BHS – it is an iconic business that could be revived.

Austin Reed’s recent demise was inevitable and the reasons for it are by now well documented: it has been left to plod along for years producing the same old corporate suits, neglected and underinvested. As a result, it has failed to attract new customers. Meanwhile there are trendier, cheaper suits available on the high street.

But, with the right leadership and investment, Austin Reed could rise from the ashes. At last week’s Drapers Digital Forum, speakers included the co-founders of men’s personal styling sites Thread and Enclothed.

They told delegates their customers had extremely high expectations: they want quality at keen prices and expect retailers to make shopping easier and more personalised (read how here). This extends to bricks-and-mortar stores.

Austin Reed hasn’t managed to keep up with the pace of change thus far, but if it can learn from start-ups such as Thread and infuse its heritage with the latest menswear trends and technologies, it could remain a fixture on the British high street for the foreseeable future.

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