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.