The implosion of BHS is a sad indictment of the British High Street. But rather than seeing doom, gloom, and not much boom, we see a huge opportunity.
As Mary Portas said this week in the Guardian, BHS failed because it lost relevance. It became a down-market hybrid of M&S and Debenhams. Yawn. At its best, in the 60s and 70s, BHS played a significant role in British culture; curating a range of low cost home-wares for British consumers. Over time, as British manufacturing declined, the Internet happened and our tastes became more adventurous, the reasons for visiting BHS disappeared. Unless, of course, you needed somewhere quiet to shelter from the chaos of Oxford Street.
Selling derivative, average, quality goods that can be bought elsewhere for less isn’t a great business model. There is no point BHS carrying on as it did before, but with new financial arrangements. Something radical needs to happen in order for the new BHS to take on the positive role in British culture it once had.
It’s a good thing BHS died. Something better will rise from its ashes.
This might sound mad. But. What if the government were to take control of BHS? Much like they stepped in to take control of RBS (they like TLAs with an S at the end). And what if they renamed BHS – British Homeware’s Society.
What if it adopted the model of being a mutual society for the purveyance of British home wares, for the mutual benefit of British craftsmen and consumers (and not Baron Phillip Green-back)?
It would be a bit like a kickstarter powered version of Heal’s – but at the price point of TK Maxx. If the Sainsbury’s TU range can do it, why can’t BHS?
Why not repurpose the floor space and make the stores feel like studios and workshops so you get an experience that feels like Design Junction, rather than the WH Smith at Watford Junction.
The new BHS would partner with the country’s numerous art colleges to seek young designers to create their goods. And would engage consumers by empowering them to select the range they should stock – like a large scale incubator.
Apprenticeships would be abundant. Unemployable art students would be given an outlet to sell their wares. You’d be able to hear the story behind the person who had designed the range of goods. It would be a great value store, with even greater values. The profits would be returned to the craftsmen. And after a while the government could sell the new BHS on to a new buyer, but with secure covenants that protected its special values.
It’s like a positive version of protectionism. Let’s celebrate British talent and make the new BHS a delivery vehicle for British creativity and craft. Then, let’s roll the new BHS out across the world. Let’s not just make speeches about the march of the makers, let’s be British about it, and give them a shop to sell their goods in too.