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Drapers Comment: Positive mood at BHS but is revamp enough to save the high street stalwart?

Positivity, optimism and, dare I say it, confidence were in the air when I met the senior team of BHS at the debut of its new store concept in Watford last week.

Chief executive Darren Topp and his team unveiled the “first step” in the firm’s turnaround plan under Retail Acquisitions, the mysterious entity that acquired the troubled retailer for £1 from Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia in March. The steps they have taken are simple, but BHS is banking on them (quite literally) being effective.

Clarity and simplicity seem to be the name of the game. The food offer - trialled in three shops last year - is being rolled out to give shoppers more convenience; the fashion layout has been simplified so it’s easier to navigate and the signage throughout the shop has been improved. Duplicated ranges have been stripped back, product displays have been improved and visual merchandising increased to help shoppers put outfits together. The new logo, spelling out “British Home Stores” under the BHS initials, references the history of the business, but signals new change.

Trading director of clothing Sara Bradley told Drapers style and quality are at the heart of the business moving forward. “It’s more inspirational and premium but still good value for money.” The business has created defined areas in store for key volume categories like coats, jeans and jersey so shoppers know where to go to find what they are looking for.

Indeed the fashion offer looked smart. The ‘city slicker’ story, which launched the autumn 15 range earlier this month, nodded to key styles for the season, from oversized tartan wraps to PU pencil dresses, in a way that works for the 40-something shopper BHS is targeting.

However, as impressed as I was with the team’s efforts and the upgraded Watford shop, one store does not a success make. It is all well and good to redesign the layout and displays in such a large unit (54,000 sq ft of trading space) and one which has multiple entrances and large window space leading in from both the Intu shopping centre and the high street. It may not be as easy to translate the concept into one of BHS’s smaller regional units - a fact that retail powerhouses like M&S know all too well.

The business is trading up on last year and has high hopes heading into the critical Christmas trading period but it will not be smooth sailing for the once iconic retailer. As has been well documented, suppliers cannot get insurance against the business, so they either do not want to deal with it or will insist on being paid up front by letter of credit, thereby negatively affecting the chain’s cash flow.

The new-look BHS has been designed for the modern busy mum in her 40s but competition in that market is fierce. Topp insisted there was room in the middle market for BHS but the business needs to draw in a younger shopper if it is to grow. While I was in the Watford store the vast majority of shoppers were over the age of 60 (granted it was one store on one morning so by no means an exhaustive test of demographic) but BHS needs to shed its older image if the turnaround is to take hold.

Many are sceptical that the retailer will trade into the new year - once it has reaped the fruits of the festive season - but Topp and his team are determined the plan will work. I, and its 11,000 employees, hope he is right.

What do you think?

Readers' comments (1)

  • Memories of Woolworths...?

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