What must BHS do to survive its CVA revival?

BHS’ owners breathed a sigh of relief this week when creditors voted in favour of a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) that will see rents cut on many of its stores, but this is just one small victory on the road to recovery.

The department store chain’s past has been somewhat chequered in recent history. Loss making for 7 years, BHS was bought by invesment group Retail Acquisitions for just £1 in March 2015, when retail Tycoon Sir Philip Green failed to revive its fortunes.

BHS’ chief executive, Darren Topp, has placed the blame for its latest poor performance squarely at the door of retail property prices, claiming the retailer’s problems are down to cost rather than sales.

The CVA will certainly ease some of this pressure, as 47 stores will have rents slashed by either 50% or 75%, while negotiations will take place to reduce rental on the remaining 40 stores (excluding those held separately by BHS Properties Limited) by 25%.

What’s more important, though, is that Retail Acquisitions use this lifeline to raise the capital needed to reinvigorate the BHS brand, as its lacklustre results are down to much more than rising costs. “The shops are tatty and the clothing lines dowdy,” remarked the Financial Times’ Jonathan Guthrie in his analysis of the situation.

However, Guthrie’s conclusion that “department stores have themselves fallen from fashion with shoppers” couldn’t be further from the truth. BHS has to look no further than John Lewis and House of Fraser – both of which pre-date the 88-year-old chain – to see two examples of similar businesses that have evolved much more successfully.

So, where did BHS go wrong – and what does it need to do in order to put it right? Certainly within omnichannel retail, the business has been caught napping. John Lewis and House of Fraser have put significant investment into their digital strategies, both in terms of online offering and promoting technology-led engagement in the store. House of Fraser has gone mobile-first with its website, while John Lewis’ retail app was recently voted third best in the UK. Both companies have invested heavily in click-and-collect.

In contrast, BHS has been driving down its margins even further with seemingly permanent discount promotions, and trying to diversify into new areas such as foods rather than reinventing its core clothing and homeware range.

Recently, though, there has been light at the end of the tunnel. The convenience food initiative is still in play, but BHS seems to have turned a corner with regards to prioritising what needs to change. 23 stores have already undergone a rebrand, and Topp has vowed to streamline its product range and focus on the brands which resonate with its customers. It’s also implementing an aggressive ecommerce strategy, to increase online shopping’s share of sales from 12% to 20%.

Interestingly, BHS has hired ex-House of Fraser brand marketing director, Tony Holdway, as marketing and creative director. He has already vowed to overturn the company’s lack of brand appeal and investment.

The fact that Holdway has jumped ship from House of Fraser is almost a bigger coup for BHS than the CVA. Having someone who knows how to run department store marketing, 2016 style, will help the retailer to shake off its outdated image and start embracing the omnichannel, multi-touchpoint journey to purchase that hallmarks modern retail.

One thing is for sure; if BHS doesn’t aspire to the relevance and agility of John Lewis and House of Fraser, it’s going to find itself back in the danger zone pretty quickly. And it would be a huge shame to lose one of the High Street’s most recognisable heritage brands.

How can retailers make in-store a more flexible shopping environment?

For every positive story in the retail press at the moment, there seems to be a contrasting tale of lesser fortunes. For example, Ocado has announced a first-quarter jump in sales, with average orders increasing nearly 17%, and weekly orders passing a quarter of a million for the first time. Compare this to the wider grocery industry, where profits are falling and sales are stalling, and it’s clear that more needs to be done to keep customers satisfied.  It’s not a just supermarket thing either; only last week, John Lewis revealed a near 10% fall in pre-tax profit.

What makes John Lewis unlike some of the other retail brands to have suffered a dip in sales is that they simultaneously announced a plan to drive recovery. The department store chain is moving their services to 7-day delivery, driven by the “need to reflect how and when our customers are shopping with us” in the words of Managing Director, Andy Street, as “customers increasingly want flexible shopping and delivery times”.

The fact that John Lewis wants flexible shopping as well as delivery is important. The recent success of Ocado would indicate that fulfilment is high up the priority list for consumers, but convenience and seamlessness rank highly also. PWC’s Total Retail Global Report 2016 shows 55% of UK consumers cite convenience as their main attraction to online shopping, compared to just 37% being motivated by price.

Bearing this in mind, retailers need to focus on making the store more flexible and agile, in line with shopper priorities. Click-and-collect has been the first hugely successful cross over service in this area; 60% of consumer report they have used it, and a huge 98% recognise the concept. This illustrates that, despite drops in foot traffic, shopping in-store is still an important channel for most consumers.

So how can retailers create a store environment that not only attracts shoppers, but also meets their expectations and encourages them to spend? PWC asked a sample group of online shoppers how retailers could enhance their physical stores, and better alignment of in-store and online services ranked highly. With this in mind, we would recommend retailers focus on enhancing three core aspects of their bricks-and-mortar business:

  1. Increase communication between staff, and locations, to streamline the customers experience

Poor in-store communication has long been a problem for some retailers, but improving it needs to be a priority. We know that a third of consumers have abandoned a shopping trip because they couldn’t get the information they needed prior to purchase, while 4 in 10 have left a store and sought the item elsewhere. The industry needs to understand that consumers place value on the ability to check online stock quickly (32%) and sales associates with a deep knowledge of the product range (40%).

Alongside providing training to empower their staff with all the information they need, retailers should consider investing in managed data networks to address this problem. Giving sales associates connected devices can improve their access to knowledge about the customer, as well as giving instant access to stock information, store transfers, and transactional capabilities, but these will only run efficiently with a robust supporting network

  1. Improve systems to reduce waiting times

Shoppers, rightly, demand the speediest checkout experience (35%) possible, and retailers know queuing times can have a negative effect on sales. Yet many are working with overloaded systems, which can affect not only payments, customer queries, and processing orders, but also core tasks including inventory. This has huge potential impacts on customer loyalty, with a third (32%) of consumers not returning to stores with slow service, and 1 in 5 being put off buying from that brand over any channel.

In response, retailers should review their systems and consider updating them, or even just increasing bandwidth, to avoid technical downtime.

  1. Invest in the customer across all channels, to deliver a joined up experience

PWC’s report clearly demonstrates that technology is as important in-store as online. A fifth of customers are interested in store WiFi (22%) and most use their mobile phone as an important research tool when wandering the aisles. Alongside this, many shoppers would like to receive mobile promotions in-store, be able to access loyalty programs, and make mobile payments.

With 3 in 10 believing the quickest way to answer queries is to look up the question on their own mobile device, retailers can better facilitate consumer needs by ensuring there is a fast, secure WiFi offering in place, and also providing independent technology experiences such as in-store tablet information points.

To find out more download our report More than words – Why retailers and customers are becoming disconnected by the store network – and how to fix it

The secret to successful store expansion

Online retail is no stranger to positive headlines. In fact, it sometimes seems that all we hear about in the industry is the strength of ecommerce.

And it’s these types of stories that have put stores in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Although 90% of all sales still happen in physical shops, there seems to be far more of a focus on the aspects of bricks-and-mortar that aren’t doing quite so well. For example, in the last few weeks alone, BHS, Greggs and Dixons Carphone have been making headlines regarding store closures.

One of the key reasons that stores close is because they don’t resonate with shoppers; in the interactive, instant world of digital commerce, store layouts and processes can appear outdated. However, this is something that can be amended – and there’s a huge appetite amongst retailers for getting the store right and growing its presence. New research by CBRE has revealed that retail estate expansion still remains high on the agenda, with 83% of retailers adamant that store growth will not be influenced by the rise of ecommerce this year. After all, there is no online substitute for seeing, touching and trying items before purchase.

The benefits of bricks-and-mortar haven’t gone unnoticed by e-tailers. Already this year, we’ve seen their eyes move towards the high streets, with the likes of Missguided announcing its first offline stores. Yes, the business is doing very well trading as it is, but if they want to grow even further, it makes sense to offer a physical experience as an alternative too.

So how can retailers optimise their stores for profit growth – and potential expansion if they get their formula right? For starters, today’s connected consumer is all about convenience and, as we well know, that doesn’t necessarily mean choosing between online or offline retail. Instead, shoppers want to switch between the two at different stages of their journey, and they need to know that retailers will allow them to be flexible in this respect.

Achieving this level of agility means incorporating some of the elements that shoppers love about digital platforms into the store experience. Some retailers are already way ahead of the game, launching concepts that aim to convey the ‘store of the future.’

House of Fraser, for example, recently experimented with shoppable windows, whilst Tommy Hilfiger has brought the runway to the store using virtual reality headsets. These are pretty ambitious of course; the store must focus on perfecting the basics before taking this kind of leap. Investing in more mainstream technology such as mobile POS is one good example of connecting the bricks-and-mortar experience through online functionality.

Another key consideration is the interaction between ecommerce and store activity through click-and-collect. Even though many retailers already offer the service, there are still elements of the process that frustrate customers. Perfecting the ‘collect’ part should now be a major focus for stores, making it a pleasant experience for those finalising their purchase. Enabling speedy payments technology, such as contactless, will be handy here, as well as ensuring the right amount of staff are there to keep the queues running smoothly. Streamlining the click-and-collect element will increase the opportunity to encourage further impulse purchases.

Of course, not all online browsing will take place at home. In an era of smartphone addicts, it’s now habit for consumers to rely on their devices whilst in a store too. Vodat International recently commissioned some research that revealed 54% of shoppers use their smartphones to compare prices in the aisles, 46% look up product information and 44% for personal reasons, such as checking social media. The bottom line is that consumers expect to be able to connect to the web whenever suits them – and that includes within the bricks-and-mortar shopping journey.

It may seem obvious, but there are still retailers that do not invest properly in strong WiFi to encourage this behaviour in controlled circumstances. In fact, 3 in 10 shoppers don’t find the current standard of WiFi unreliable. Retailers with sub-par WiFi are not only at risk of frustrating their customers, they are also losing a valuable opportunity to understand (and react to) their behaviour patterns. Provided they select the right provider, retailers will be able to interact with, influence and capture insight on consumers when they log on to the network.

It’s great to hear that retailers are feeling optimistic about the potential of stores, especially at a time when ecommerce is threatening share of sales channel. Gone is the time where stores and online were two separate things; the future of the store is very much intertwined with digital interaction. If they go about it in the right way, retailers can now harness the power of ecommerce in the physical environment, and use it to boost profitability.

Stay tuned for our new report – Battle of the bandwidths: why customers are won and lost on the strength of retail networks – which will provide even more insights into the connected consumer.