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Causes of bhs' retail failure

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The Retail Failure Case

Retail failure occurs when retailerscease trading activities and exit their market, as a result of either micro ormacro environmental factors or both (Burt et al, 2003). An example of retailfailure is the demise and bankruptcy of BHS, which has been one of the mostcontentious and conspicuous retail failures in recent years (Meek, 2016). Theiconic British brand was formed in 1928, set up to compete with the low-costcompetitor Woolworths. However, following years of declining sales and revenueBHS 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 highstreet stores. This complex failure, is largely blamed on the poor and recklessleadership of their previous owners (Quinn, 2016; Vandevelde, 2016). This papercritically evaluates the main causes of BHS’s failure, supported by quotes frommedia outlets and underpinned by relevant theories.


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entry into the online market meantthey fell behind competitors, however once they responded, the online offering was outdated and service was inadequate.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 meantthat the department stores remained looking dull, degenerated anduninteresting, ““ the majority of BHS Stores are not fun, bright ordynamic; overall they are not a pleasant shopping environment” (LearnMarketing. net, 2016). The tired and neglected image the store portrayed was detrimental to thebrand, as consumer’s retail experiences in-store can impact their perceptionsof store value and brand worth (Pugh et al., 2002). Furthermore, BHS failed tokeep up with shopper demands (Quinn, 2016), neglecting the consumer’s desirefor  more personalised shoppingexperiences in the form of concessions, unlike their main competitors Debenhamsand House of Fraser.

Brand Image

BHS failed to differentiate themselves fromtheir main competitors, ” BHSfailed because it lacked meaning and purpose” (Tate, 2016), therefore theretailer did not have clear and recognisable brand identity and purpose. Aunique selling point is crucial so that a firm can gain and sustain acompetitive advantage (Levitt, 1986). Moreover, “ what it sold was neitherunique nor well-priced” (Quinn, 2016), both price and product are fundamentalcomponents of McCarthy’s (1960) marketing mix, price signals product qualityand worth, while the product should reflect consumer tastes and preferences.


One of the key contributing factor toBHS’ downfall was its poor leadership, “ leadership failures and personal greedled to collapse of BHS” (ParliamentUK, 2016). BHS was guilty of recklessmismanagement, lead by their greedy and irresponsible owner Sir Phillip Green. Incessantly poor financial management and high cost structures lead to hugecompany debts and a pensions deficit of £571 million (Fuller, 2016).  Poor management of high cost structures cancause competitive disadvantage, which largely contributed to the failure (Slatterand Lovett, 1999).

Increased Competition

BHS faced increasing competitionfrom 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 ‘ voluntaristperspective’, positioning retail failure to be determined mainly by internalfactors within an organisation, that stem from management’s decision-making (Cameronet al., 1998). The theories of narcissism, e-tailing and the big middle arediscussed.

Narcissistic Management

Retailfailure is often associated with an organisation’s internal management team orsimply one senior figure with a dominant style of leadership who controlsdecision-making (Mellahi& Wilkinson, 2004).  Organisationstudies literature often pins failure on management’s lack of vision or thelack of willingness to make positive changes in order to halt performancedecline generated by external factors (Mellahi et al., 2002). This can be explained by narcissisticbehaviour, narcissistic leaders make self-centred decisions, ignoring outsideadvice, therefore increasing the risk of retail failure (Macoby, 2000). Inaddition, managers who display narcissistic behaviour, often influence otherfactors that contribute to organisational failure, these include failure toadapt and alter existing ways of working (Bateman and Zeithaml, 1989) andmanagement’s inability to perceive their own strengths and weaknesses, orpredict customers’ demands or competitor movements (Zajac and Bazerman, 1991).

Narcissisticbehaviour often stems from previous success which makes managers susceptible tofailure (Whetten, 1980).  Priorachievements can lead to over-confidence and egotism (Miller, 1990), with somewriters arguing that ‘ success breeds failure’, and ‘ further failure breedsfailure’ (Mellahi & Willkinson, 2002; Starbuck et al., 1978). This isespecially the case when business conditions change, and narcissistic leaders segregatethemselves, take unnecessary risks and make irrational decisions to thedetriment of the business (Holsti, 1978; Macoby 2000). Narcissism is also oftencaused 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 utilisingresources to seize new opportunities (Argenti, 1976). However, there is somecriticism of the theory, with industrial organisation literature arguing thatorganisational failure is an inherent market occurrence caused by externalcircumstances (Balderston, 1972).


Technologicaladvancements in recent years, such as the widespread availability of theinternet and the development of Web 2. 0 technologies, a new cohort of onlineapplications designed for consumer collaboration (Beer and Burrows, 2007), havetransformed consumption trends. The rise of online technologies has alteredexisting retail traditions, and  onlineretailing has redefined the retail landscape and shows no signs of slowing down(Rao, 1999).

Electronicretailing (e-tailing) is a method of selling goods and services through theinternet, over recent years it has rivalled and in some sectors overtakentraditional retailing channels (Wang et al., 2002). E-tailing has facilitatedthe creation of multi-channel organisations (Wrigley et al., 2002), who sellonline and in-store, for these firms it is important that the differentplatforms are integrated, reflecting a consistent and coherent brand image(Gallaugher, 1999).

Theuse of Omni-channel technologies such as Smartphone shopping apps, allows theretailer to engage with the customer well past the traditional in-storepurchasing stage, internet technology provides the shopper with continuousbrand interaction and facilitates the formation of a customer-brandrelationship (Wang et al, 2002). For example, the rapid development in Web 2. 0technologies, and their increasing involvement in everyday life (Lenhart andMadden, 2005), means consumers can easily create personal online accounts withthe retailer. This enables the collection of consumer data and insight for theretailer, which if done correctly allows them to tailor the shopping experiencefor individuals (Burke, 1996).

Literaturesuggests that although e-tailing holds both advantages and disadvantages forfirms, costs are seemingly outweighed by benefits, which include lower overheadfixed costs and streamlined operations processes (Piris et al., 2004).  It is also argued that the growth ofe-tailing has in-turn modernised information exchanges, leading to moreefficient transactions that save the retailer time and money (Peterson et al., 1994). In terms of customer benefits, e-tailing is highly convenient and givesshoppers access to more information allowing them to compare prices andproducts instantly (Cross and Smith, 1995).

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

The Big Middle

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

Thetheory can often provide justification and reasoning for the success or failureof retailers (Gorton et al., 2009).

Themodel identifies four possible segments within the market where a retailer maybe positioned, big middle, innovative, low price and in-trouble (Levy et al., 2005). Retailers first must ascertain themselves as either innovators orleaders in low-price, yet then their goal is to maintain their position in thebig middle as this is the most competitive segment of the market, offering theopportunity for firms to grow their revenues, economies of scale and thus gainhigher profits (Brown et al., 2005). However, for a retailer to be successfulin this segment it must continually deliver value (Reynolds et al., 2007), onlyachieving this by frequently adapting their business model to suit changingconsumer preferences in an active environment (D’Aveni and MacMillan, 1990). Inabilityto adjust branding, and balance price and product offerings, will result inmovement to the ‘ in-trouble’ segment, forcing the retailer to become a lessercompetitor 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’sowner and senior management team ignored the evident signals that the marketwas changing, and becoming more digitalised, with competition from closestrivals intensifying. The managements blind overconfidence demonstrated theirnarcissistic behaviour (Macoby, 2000). SirPhillip Green’s previous success with high-street giants such as Topshop mayhave blinded his vision making him unable to identify his own weaknesses, believing he only possessed strengths (Zajac & Bazerman, 1991). An arrogantleadership, and segregation from advice or criticism (Macoby, 2000) , may havecontributed to BHS’s management resting in a stage of denial about the negativeperformance of the firm (Hayes and Hyde, 1996). As market conditions continuedto shift towards more tailored and online shopper experiences, BHS ability tocompete worsened. Supporting Macoby’s (2000) theory that narcissisticmanagement is unable to cope in times of volatile market conditions.

PhillipGreen and Dominic Chepal’s narcissistic leadership lead to them foregoing eventhe basics of running a successful retailer, hardly focusing on effectiveimplementation of McCarthy’s (1960) Marketing Mix. BHS disregarded theimportance of tailoring and adapting their product range to suit new trends andcustomer needs, they overlooked the design and appearance of their large storesand misjudged their pricing and promotion strategies, which did not send anyclear message or present their objectives to their target audience. The concernof reaching short-term goals, lack of vision and unwillingness to alterstrategies, demonstrated BHS’s narcissistic governance and was a significantcause of its failure.

BHS and E-tailing

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

Failureto grasp the significance of e-tailing at a similar time to their competitorsmeant BHS was unable to take advantage of the benefits e-tailing provides, suchas consumer data collection that could generate market insights and increasedcustomer-brand interaction and awareness (Wang et al., 2002). Therefore, BHS’sslow and half-hearted response to the digital shift and failure to succeed ononline platforms, contributed their collapse.

BHS and The Big Middle

Theconcept 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 UKhigh-street, entering the market as a low-price specialist, and laterdiversifying its product range and up-scaling prices, in line with the bigmiddle literature (Quinn, 2016). As previously mentioned, in order to maintainposition in the big middle, retailers must adapt to market changes to meetshopper demands (Gorton et al., 2005). Failure in redefining their businessmodel 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

Earlierin the module, a group task was undertaken with the aim of creating a marketingplan to transform a small failing retail business. After completing the taskand the module, this process is reflected upon, supported by relevant theory.

Creatingan effective marketing plan is essential in enhancing a sustainable competitiveadvantage (Azmit and Zott, 2001). While themarketing plan featured many components, only a selection are discussed in thisreflection. The segmentation and targeting of our business was key in enablingus to understand the needs of our customers. Due to our product offering, whichconsisted of gifts for the home, we decided our target audience would befemales over the age of thirty. Although demographic segmentation is a usefultool to identify a potential target audience (Belch and Belch, 2012), thischoice was based on broad general assumptions and not comprehensive marketanalysis.

Uponreflection, given less time constraints we would carry out in-depth marketresearch to fully understand who our customer is, by carrying out surveys andinterviews. Moreover, rather than just using demographic segmentation which canbe vague, we would choose psychographic segmentation which is based onlifestyle, and adds value and depth to demographic data (Pickton &Broderick, 2000).  Furthermore, theoriginal choice of segmentation was extremely limited and excluded a largesection of potential customers. On reflection, we as shop owners should haveconsciously aimed to make the business appeal to a wider range of people inorder to guarantee the successful re-launch of the business.

Brandnames should be memorable, unique and symbolic (Grewal, 1998), however, ourchoice 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 theretailer regularly. On reflection, a more representative firm name would beappropriate.

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


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