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Causes of BHS' Retail Failure

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Retail
Wordcount: 5174 words Published: 9th Apr 2019

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The Retail Failure Case

Retail failure occurs when retailers cease trading activities and exit their market, as a result of either micro or macro environmental factors or both (Burt et al, 2003). An example of retail failure is the demise and bankruptcy of BHS, which has been one of the most contentious and conspicuous retail failures in recent years (Meek, 2016). The iconic British brand was formed in 1928, set up to compete with the low-cost competitor Woolworths. However, following years of declining sales and revenue BHS was placed into administration in June 2016 (Rankin and Fletcher, 2016). BHS’s collapse resulted in the loss of 11,000 jobs and the closure of 164 high street stores. This complex failure, is largely blamed on the poor and reckless leadership of their previous owners (Quinn, 2016; Vandevelde, 2016). This paper critically evaluates the main causes of BHS’s failure, supported by quotes from media outlets and underpinned by relevant theories.

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The development of  online services is crucial for all retailers, as the internet is argued to be the most important retail innovation in recent times (Levy et al, 2004). BHS failed to develop a competent online offering, “they were too slow and their ecommerce offering was poor. John Lewis and House of Fraser reaped the rewards on ‘click and collect’ while BHS struggled to catch up” (ref). BHS’ late entry into the online market meant they fell behind competitors, however once they responded, the online offering was outdated and service was inadequate. The lack of investment in the online experience reflected their unfashionable brand image, “a quick look online will tell you that BHS apps score just 3.4 stars on Google Play and 2.5 on iTunes, while recent reviews are generally unfavourable” (Couttigane, 2016). BHS failed to understand the significance of capturing the demand for integrated multi-channel online shopping, in turn losing many shoppers.

Store Design

Lack of investment and creativity meant that the department stores remained looking dull, degenerated and uninteresting, ““the majority of BHS Stores are not fun, bright or dynamic; overall they are not a pleasant shopping environment” (LearnMarketing.net, 2016). The tired and neglected image the store portrayed was detrimental to the brand, as consumer’s retail experiences in-store can impact their perceptions of store value and brand worth (Pugh et al., 2002). Furthermore, BHS failed to keep up with shopper demands (Quinn, 2016), neglecting the consumer’s desire for  more personalised shopping experiences in the form of concessions, unlike their main competitors Debenhams and House of Fraser.

Brand Image

BHS failed to differentiate themselves from their main competitors, ” BHS failed because it lacked meaning and purpose” (Tate, 2016), therefore the retailer did not have clear and recognisable brand identity and purpose. A unique selling point is crucial so that a firm can gain and sustain a competitive advantage (Levitt, 1986). Moreover, “what it sold was neither unique nor well-priced” (Quinn, 2016), both price and product are fundamental components of McCarthy’s (1960) marketing mix, price signals product quality and worth, while the product should reflect consumer tastes and preferences.


One of the key contributing factor to BHS’ downfall was its poor leadership, “leadership failures and personal greed led to collapse of BHS” (ParliamentUK, 2016). BHS was guilty of reckless mismanagement, lead by their greedy and irresponsible owner Sir Phillip Green. Incessantly poor financial management and high cost structures lead to huge company debts and a pensions deficit of £571 million (Fuller, 2016).  Poor management of high cost structures can cause competitive disadvantage, which largely contributed to the failure (Slatter and Lovett, 1999).

Increased Competition  

BHS faced increasing competition from all angles, “from Tesco and the big supermarket chains to out-of-town retailers such as Ikea, to rival department stores such as John  Lewis, huge swathes of the retail firmament began to eat BHS’s lunch” (Quinn, 2016). Due to its lack of USP and the increased rivalry of competition, BHS’s offering seemed even less valuable and it was unable to compete with the likes of supermarkets which offered a wide product range, and convenience through guaranteed parking (Bellini, 2011).

Therefore, the main causes of BHS’s failure were poor e-commerce, store design, brand image and management, and increased competition. These are further explained by relevant theories, which are outlined in the following section.

Evaluation of Theory

All theories evaluated are based on the ‘voluntarist perspective’, positioning retail failure to be determined mainly by internal factors within an organisation, that stem from management’s decision-making (Cameron et al., 1998). The theories of narcissism, e-tailing and the big middle are discussed.

Narcissistic Management

Retail failure is often associated with an organisation’s internal management team or simply one senior figure with a dominant style of leadership who controls decision-making (Mellahi & Wilkinson, 2004).  Organisation studies literature often pins failure on management’s lack of vision or the lack of willingness to make positive changes in order to halt performance decline generated by external factors (Mellahi et al., 2002). This can be explained by narcissistic behaviour, narcissistic leaders make self-centred decisions, ignoring outside advice, therefore increasing the risk of retail failure (Macoby, 2000). In addition, managers who display narcissistic behaviour, often influence other factors that contribute to organisational failure, these include failure to adapt and alter existing ways of working (Bateman and Zeithaml, 1989) and management’s inability to perceive their own strengths and weaknesses, or predict customers’ demands or competitor movements (Zajac and Bazerman, 1991).

Narcissistic behaviour often stems from previous success which makes managers susceptible to failure (Whetten, 1980).  Prior achievements can lead to over-confidence and egotism (Miller, 1990), with some writers arguing that ‘success breeds failure’, and ‘further failure breeds failure’ (Mellahi & Willkinson, 2002; Starbuck et al., 1978). This is especially the case when business conditions change, and narcissistic leaders segregate themselves, take unnecessary risks and make irrational decisions to the detriment of the business (Holsti, 1978; Macoby 2000). Narcissism is also often caused by a needless focus on historical achievements (Mellahi et al., 2002), and in a crisis situation, managers will behave with rigidity (Staw et al., 1981), rather than countering potential environmental threats and utilising resources to seize new opportunities (Argenti, 1976). However, there is some criticism of the theory, with industrial organisation literature arguing that organisational failure is an inherent market occurrence caused by external circumstances (Balderston, 1972).


Technological advancements in recent years, such as the widespread availability of the internet and the development of Web 2.0 technologies, a new cohort of online applications designed for consumer collaboration (Beer and Burrows, 2007), have transformed consumption trends. The rise of online technologies has altered existing retail traditions, and  online retailing has redefined the retail landscape and shows no signs of slowing down (Rao, 1999).

Electronic retailing (e-tailing) is a method of selling goods and services through the internet, over recent years it has rivalled and in some sectors overtaken traditional retailing channels (Wang et al., 2002). E-tailing has facilitated the creation of multi-channel organisations (Wrigley et al., 2002), who sell online and in-store, for these firms it is important that the different platforms are integrated, reflecting a consistent and coherent brand image (Gallaugher, 1999).

The use of Omni-channel technologies such as Smartphone shopping apps, allows the retailer to engage with the customer well past the traditional in-store purchasing stage, internet technology provides the shopper with continuous brand interaction and facilitates the formation of a customer-brand relationship (Wang et al, 2002). For example, the rapid development in Web 2.0 technologies, and their increasing involvement in everyday life (Lenhart and Madden, 2005), means consumers can easily create personal online accounts with the retailer. This enables the collection of consumer data and insight for the retailer, which if done correctly allows them to tailor the shopping experience for individuals (Burke, 1996).

Literature suggests that although e-tailing holds both advantages and disadvantages for firms, costs are seemingly outweighed by benefits, which include lower overhead fixed costs and streamlined operations processes (Piris et al., 2004).  It is also argued that the growth of e-tailing has in-turn modernised information exchanges, leading to more efficient transactions that save the retailer time and money (Peterson et al., 1994). In terms of customer benefits, e-tailing is highly convenient and gives shoppers access to more information allowing them to compare prices and products instantly (Cross and Smith, 1995).

However, other perspectives in the literature suggest that e-tailing has stemmed from radical industry change (Dosi et al., 1997), and such sweeping change can risk exposing a firm to retail failure if unprepared (Williams, 2009). Furthermore, e-tailing on a large scale may only be reserved for larger retailers, limiting the participation of smaller businesses, because the set up and maintenance costs of website design and infrastructures can be costly (Wang et al., 2002). However, Chandra and Sunitha (2012) reiterate that unless traditional retailers adapt their business models and embrace the online movement, they risk retail failure.

The Big Middle

The ‘big middle’ is the area of the market in which the biggest retailers compete in the long run, due to it holding the largest number of potential customers (Levy et al., 2005). The theory is explained through a model (found in Appendix 1) that illustrates the strategic movements of retail organisations, explaining market entry and firm location (Manfred and Mantrala, 2006). Although the ‘big middle’ is a static theory where only the firm’s rivals change, it is argued to be underpinned by a cyclical evolutionary pattern (Williams, 2009).

The theory can often provide justification and reasoning for the success or failure of retailers (Gorton et al., 2009).

The model identifies four possible segments within the market where a retailer may be positioned, big middle, innovative, low price and in-trouble (Levy et al., 2005). Retailers first must ascertain themselves as either innovators or leaders in low-price, yet then their goal is to maintain their position in the big middle as this is the most competitive segment of the market, offering the opportunity for firms to grow their revenues, economies of scale and thus gain higher profits (Brown et al., 2005). However, for a retailer to be successful in this segment it must continually deliver value (Reynolds et al., 2007), only achieving this by frequently adapting their business model to suit changing consumer preferences in an active environment (D’Aveni and MacMillan, 1990). Inability to adjust branding, and balance price and product offerings, will result in movement to the ‘in-trouble’ segment, forcing the retailer to become a lesser competitor or exit the market (Levy et al., 2005).

Although the ‘Big Middle’  provides some compelling justifications for retail failure, there are also limitations with this theory. Manfred and Mantrala (2006) suggest the model should be extended to incorporate online retailers and the concept of e-tailing. While further research on the topic could shed light on multiple unresolved questions (Levy et al., 2005; Reynolds et al., 2007).

Application of Theory to BHS

BHS and Narcissism

BHS’s owner and senior management team ignored the evident signals that the market was changing, and becoming more digitalised, with competition from closest rivals intensifying. The managements blind overconfidence demonstrated their narcissistic behaviour (Macoby, 2000). Sir Phillip Green’s previous success with high-street giants such as Topshop may have blinded his vision making him unable to identify his own weaknesses, believing he only possessed strengths (Zajac & Bazerman, 1991). An arrogant leadership, and segregation from advice or criticism (Macoby, 2000) , may have contributed to BHS’s management resting in a stage of denial about the negative performance of the firm (Hayes and Hyde, 1996). As market conditions continued to shift towards more tailored and online shopper experiences, BHS ability to compete worsened. Supporting Macoby’s (2000) theory that narcissistic management is unable to cope in times of volatile market conditions.

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Phillip Green and Dominic Chepal’s narcissistic leadership lead to them foregoing even the basics of running a successful retailer, hardly focusing on effective implementation of McCarthy’s (1960) Marketing Mix. BHS disregarded the importance of tailoring and adapting their product range to suit new trends and customer needs, they overlooked the design and appearance of their large stores and misjudged their pricing and promotion strategies, which did not send any clear message or present their objectives to their target audience. The concern of reaching short-term goals, lack of vision and unwillingness to alter strategies, demonstrated BHS’s narcissistic governance and was a significant cause of its failure.

BHS and E-tailing

BHS’ failed to adapt to the change in shopper habits, that shifted from bricks and mortar high street shops towards a switch to online. It lagged behind many of its rivals such as Debenhams who allowed e-tailing platforms to significantly influence their retailer strategies and created an integrated multi-channel shopping platform (Berman & Evans, 2006). Retailer strategies should be carefully considered and altered for the e-tailing context, in particular retailers should mirror their store concept online, in order to portray a unified brand image (Muller-Lankenau et al., 2006).  BHS did not portray any clear identity or brand image in-store or on their online site, this meant that very few customers who went online to browse the site actually purchased products, and the website was unable to attract customers in-store either (Quinn, 2016. This was in contrast to multiple rivals such as M&S who’s shoppers shared similar demographics in terms of age and socio-economic position (Peters, 2015).

Failure to grasp the significance of e-tailing at a similar time to their competitors meant BHS was unable to take advantage of the benefits e-tailing provides, such as consumer data collection that could generate market insights and increased customer-brand interaction and awareness (Wang et al., 2002). Therefore, BHS’s slow and half-hearted response to the digital shift and failure to succeed on online platforms, contributed their collapse.

BHS and The Big Middle

The concept of the big middle provides a sound explanation of BHS’s retail failure. The department store held a strong position amongst its competitors on the UK high-street, entering the market as a low-price specialist, and later diversifying its product range and up-scaling prices, in line with the big middle literature (Quinn, 2016). As previously mentioned, in order to maintain position in the big middle, retailers must adapt to market changes to meet shopper demands (Gorton et al., 2005). Failure in redefining their business model and their product offering, meant BHS entered the in-trouble segment, subsequently exiting the market (Levy et al., 2005).

Furthermore, BHS’  inability to decide on the right brand identity meant they were unable to provide value to their customers, leading to decreased sales and market share. The lack of a positive identifiable brand was worsened by BHS differentiating on neither price or innovation, the two key characteristics that are essential to stay in the big middle (Levy et al., 2005).  BHS’s failure to portray an identifiable brand image, with no clear price or innovation differentiator in a competitive environment was a key factor in their failure.

Reflection on Marketing Plan

Earlier in the module, a group task was undertaken with the aim of creating a marketing plan to transform a small failing retail business. After completing the task and the module, this process is reflected upon, supported by relevant theory.  

Creating an effective marketing plan is essential in enhancing a sustainable competitive advantage (Azmit and Zott, 2001). While the marketing plan featured many components, only a selection are discussed in this reflection. The segmentation and targeting of our business was key in enabling us to understand the needs of our customers. Due to our product offering, which consisted of gifts for the home, we decided our target audience would be females over the age of thirty. Although demographic segmentation is a useful tool to identify a potential target audience (Belch and Belch, 2012), this choice was based on broad general assumptions and not comprehensive market analysis.  

Upon reflection, given less time constraints we would carry out in-depth market research to fully understand who our customer is, by carrying out surveys and interviews. Moreover, rather than just using demographic segmentation which can be vague, we would choose psychographic segmentation which is based on lifestyle, and adds value and depth to demographic data (Pickton & Broderick, 2000).  Furthermore, the original choice of segmentation was extremely limited and excluded a large section of potential customers. On reflection, we as shop owners should have consciously aimed to make the business appeal to a wider range of people in order to guarantee the successful re-launch of the business.

Brand names should be memorable, unique and symbolic (Grewal, 1998), however, our choice of name ‘Gifts R Us’ was very similar to the children’s shop ‘Toys R Us’ and therefore is not suitable and could mean our shop gets mistaken for the retailer regularly. On reflection, a more representative firm name would be appropriate.

Leveraging and maximising the shop location was a key part of the marketing plan, as it is fundamental in delivering success, especially for small retail businesses (Kuo et al., 2002). Although the shop was not located on the busiest high street, it instead maintained a position on a quieter more traditional road, we felt this played to our strengths because it reflected the cosy and peaceful brand image of the shop. In order to further enhance and compliment our product offering of home ware gifts and to fit in with the calming ambience of the shop, we proposed to build an accompanying coffee shop. This would differentiate our shop from the other gift shops in the town who do not offer this service, and clear differentiation enhances brand image (Zentes et al., 2008). The coffee shop would also provides our shop with a clear brand extension. Brand extension maintains consumer interaction with the product beyond an initial purchase, which is favourable for the firm (Murphy, 1988) and can harness stronger consumer-brand relationships (Keller, 1993). Upon reflection, this strategy was a good idea as it encourages customers to spend longer in the shop, which may lead to increased chance of purchase or creation of positive memories and associations.


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