THE PUB WITH NO BEER

I spend a lot of time in bars and pubs. However that is not the focal point of this blog. I took the title of this blog from an old Australian ditty which bemoans the lack of beer in a pub in the great outback and the sad consequences for the dreary traveller upon arriving at its doorstep.

Following on from my two previous blogs on retail failures I continue in the same maudlin vein by reviewing the position of BHS, a year on from its entry into administration.

The history of this failure is discussed widely on the internet and I urge you to read the background to its demise. What seemed to be the natural demise of a failing brand was accentuated in the press by the dreadful way in which its last owner but one: Sir Phillip Green, sold it on to an individual of dubious merit. The failure to adequately protect the pension rights of its workers also drew the ire of the business press and academic community. We will not revisit that aspect of the case in this blog: but focus on the essential issue of the relevance of a brand that has failed so badly and the logic of trying to resurrect it from the dead.

Let’s investigate its demise more fully.

Prior to going into administration in April 2016 it is a fact that it had been performing badly for the past seven years: this was not a sudden death to borrow a cliché. At the time it went into administration it had incurred debts of nearly £1.5 billion.

Founded in 1928 it carved out a position over the decades as a vibrant department store focusing on homeware, lighting and clothing. It built up a solid reputation for offering affordable items, at a competitive price and at an acceptable level of quality.

This worked well up until the 1990’s. Since then it has succumbed to the prevailing long-term trends and developments in retailing – such as the internet revolution and the resulting surge to online retail channels and the increasingly more effective and efficient management of retail supply chains.

Operators such as Primark and Next encroached increasingly into the BHS space by offering similar items at lower prices. Even supermarket groups such as Asda moved into the pace by offering a range of clothing and accessories. Quite simply BHS became almost an irrelevance. For a more detailed appraisal of its death I encourage you to read an article published in the magazine called The Drum. (http://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2016/04/27/fall-bhs-brand-without-purpose)

How did BHS respond? Well like many companies it panicked and tried a number of initiatives, most of which appeared to have little rationale or forethought behind them. For instance it introduced a food range in some (but not all of its stores) and entered into a collaboration with a retailer called Claire’s Accessories in an attempt to attract a more youthful, teenage footfall through its stores.

Inevitably none of these introductions had any meaningful impact. At the title of the article in The Drum suggests, it became a brand with no purpose or to use my analogy, a pub with no beer. After all what is the purpose of a brand if it occupies no meaningful position in the minds of its target markets? It is the equivalent of throwing money on top of a burning fire.

One would expect therefore to see it slip off into the deep blue yonder.

Not a bit of it!!

The Al Mara Group, a Qatari conglomerate, prior to the demise of BHS had acquired the international and online divisions of the business operations. In September 2016 it reappeared on the scene as BHS.com.

As the name suggests its reincarnation revolved exclusively around its website and online operations in the UK. Initially it focused on a much smaller range and depth of items addressing the homeware, bedding and lighting sections only. This was based on the rationale that these categories, particularly lighting, had been the strongest feature of its previous value proposition. A couple of months after its re-launch it subsequently introduced a range of fashionwear items for males and females. It employs eighty-four people (a lot less than the original eleven thousand individuals in its previous existence.

After about six months into the venture its Managing Director Kevan Mallender expressed satisfaction with its performance, claiming sales of over £3 million and arguing that as it was effectively start-up business these figures represented success.

Let’s try to assess how well (or how badly) it has performed since September 2016.

At this stage in the blog I am going to introduce a challenge to you. Before reading any more of the content, I would like you to visit the website page: www.bhs.com and carry out an assessment of the site addressing all of the typical criteria that we use. Suggested areas include: layout of the site and ease of navigation, content, engagement, updates, quality of information on the items, payment procedures, customer service and so on.

After this please come back and read on!!

When we reflect on a brand and its relevance and value the gurus suggest that successful brands must be built around a relevant and live value proposition that registers in the mind of the target markets. Clearly BHS failed on most of the measures and prerequisites to meet such standards.

The new website has been assessed by experts and the general view is that as a value proposition via its online offerings, BHS remains a reasonably competitive position. It offers shoppers free delivery on items purchased over the value of £50. If it is under this figure the shopper pays £3.50 for delivery. That leaves it in a similar position to retailers such as Marks and Spencer. However it does not offer a “click and collect” option and does not make use of third party services such as Doodle and Collect+.

There is little content on the website apart from basic information on critical issues such as price and size options. Crucially it make no use of video content to capture the attention of the visitor to the site. This it can be argued would encourage interaction.

It has no user-generated content such as postings of experiences or customer reviews. It has no live chat feature.

It’s sign-up and register feature dominates the page and surprisingly it provides no incentive for shoppers to actually sign up. The search bar also has limitations (try it out)

In essence I would argue that the website at best resembles one that would have been common about five to eight years ago: information-led, no interactive dimensions and little attempt to sign up members.

I come back to my original point. What is the purpose of this brand? By that I mean the revised online version. Why is it revisiting the fashion space when it has been hammered by many more flexible and agile operators?

Possibly if it uses data from its previous customers it might be able to generate some degree of re-energised loyalty. However I doubt it. Shoppers have moved on: it is very difficult to lure them back unless you offer them something new and exciting. I do not see this on its current website.

In early 2017 the BHD Managing Director placed his faith in using the concept of a referral channel to build visitors to the site and subsequent sales. In this respect it entered into a collaboration with referral provider Mention Me. This concept is based on the simple idea of rewarding existing customers who encourage friends, relations and colleagues to sign up.

While this has certain merits it is difficult to believe that it will become a “game-changer”.

In summary I am very pessimistic and cynical about this “new” venture. What do you think?

Advertisements

JAEGER-BOMBED

We tend to become obsessed with the concept of the brand. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in the retail sector. We delight in hyping up successful brands and in the context of teaching courses on retailing we feature them prominently in our discussion and analysis.

As can be seen from some of my previous blogs I obsess about once-successful brands that have fallen on hard times or have disappeared from the high street (you can read my previous blog on FCUK for evidence of this obsession).

Another such brand popped up on the business pages in the last couple of weeks: I refer to that bastion of Britishness: Jaeger. It has been around since the latter part of the nineteenth century (founded in 1884) and its origins came from the writings of a German Professor of Zoology; Gustav Jaeger. He believed that it was healthier for people to wear clothing that was made from material such as wool, animal hair and fleece. It firmly established itself in retail folklore in 1919 when it introduced a range of camel-hair coats to the market.

Arguably its key period of success was in the 1950’s and 1960’s where famous actresses such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Jean Shrimpton wore their fashion items. Since then it has undergone a number of transformations both in terms of ownership and approach to design. It has vacillated from the classic design to a more modern approach with a focus on casualwear and then back again to the classic design. Its financial fortunes have swayed backwards and forwards as well. Sadly over the past fifteen years or so it has suffered more than most of the retailers on the high street and has recorded a steady and unremitting series of losses.

Moe recently in 2012 it was acquired by Better Capital for around £20 million and since then has also made losses: it is estimated that it has recorded losses of around £63 million. In January Better Capital sought offers and set an asking price of £30 million. It was rumoured to have sold off its debt of £7 million to Edinburgh Woollen Mill, whose owner is well-known for acquiring and turning around retailer brands such as Peacocks.

In April it went into administration having failed to generate interest from buyers, although it is expected that Edinburgh Woollen Mill will eventually acquire it.

So what went wrong? Why has this quintessentially British brand ceased to become relevant?

We can point to a number of actors for its demise.

Firstly it clearly lost its way – mainly through the bewildering array of owners and their approaches to keep it meaningful.

In terms of positioning it was perceived originally as a brand that appealed to the older and more discerning shopper seeking quality with aspirational values associated with the brand. Its main competitor was arguably Burberry, although the latter retailer underwent significant trauma about ten years ago when counterfeiters made it popular with the so-called “chav” element of society. It eventually recovered its tracks to regain its position in the market.

By contrast Jaeger has not made any inroads on its losses. So what initiatives did Better Capital implement in the period between 2012 and now?

One of the problems that we should acknowledge at the outset is the readiness of an investor such as Better Capital to make the long-term investment in order to turnaround such a retailer. Typically such investors are not prepared to take a long-term view of such a brand. It has clearly fallen off the radar to such an extent that only major investment would provide it with an opportunity to survive. Although it spent some money on it is was nowhere near enough to make inroads on the brand image and its overall brand equity.

If we refer to the challenges of positioning that we discussed in the text-book, Jaeger arguably made some fatal mistakes. By constantly changing its approach – classic to casual to classic and all over again it fell between a number of stools in the minds of both its core market (older and affluent women and men). In effect it found itself between a rock and a hard place to use a cliché. It came between a premium brand such as Burberry and slightly cheaper brands such as the US retailer J. Crew. This reinforces my view that such a position is a meaningless one. It makes it difficult (I would say virtually impossible) to carve out a clear, meaningful, relevant and substantive value proposition which can easily be perceived and assessed by shoppers. It is in effect a “non-position”.

This noon-position was compounded by the practice of the new owners to consistently introduce discounting and markdowns. This is exemplified by the following practices.

For instance it introduced a policy of twenty-five per cent off all items on Cyber Monday and fifty per cent off everything on the Black Friday weekend in 2015.

Suits officially priced at £400 sold for as little as £100.

In 2015 it operated its pricing for only two out of the fifty-two weeks without resorting to discounting. In 2016 this improved (relatively speaking) to eight weeks. This in my view is the “kiss of death” for a brand which claims to be a premium product.

While everyone accepts that discounting and markdowns are inevitable for all retailers, to systematically introduce a policy of discounting to such an extent is reckless. Effectively a retailer is conditioning and educating its core customers to expect such promotions and discounts. If repeated on such as regular basis it also changes the perception of shoppers about the position of the brand. How can you claim to be a premium brand if you are constantly feeding the shoppers with such discounts?

The owners also closed the main flagship store in Regent Street, London in early 2016. This was part of a necessary overhaul of the property portfolio and can be assessed from a number of perspectives. Arguably it was the correct one as the cost of renting such as prime location probably could not be justified, given its financial performance. It opened a smaller store (2,000 square feet) on Marylebone High Street. While it is a good location it simply is too small to act as an overall flagship store. Prior to administration it operated forty-six stores: a mixture of outlets and concessions.

Notably Jaeger was slow to embrace the inexorable move towards online retailing, relying instead on its supposed strength as a “heritage” brand and maintaining its physical store portfolio. This handed the initiative to other retailers and they succeeded in encouraging shoppers to visit their websites.

It tried to lure a younger shopper to its designs and partially succeeded (but not sufficiently) regular new designs such as Jaeger Boutique and Jaeger London collections. While the latter received critical approval, this was not reflected in sales sufficient to generate the required profit to offset continuing losses.

Undoubtedly in the past year rising labour costs and uncertainties over Brexit and the declining value of sterling has not helped Jaeger or indeed many retailers on the high street.

By trying to become trend-led (creative designs) it has compromised on its classic appeal and again falls between two stools: losing many of its older shoppers and not being price-competitive to attract a younger audience.

In summary it is a mess and this is reflected in its move into administration.

What will happen?

A prospective buyer such as Edinburgh Woollen Mill can perhaps keep the brand alive by incorporating it into its brand portfolio and it may retain a few concessions. The physical stores will close and EWM may sustain it through its online retail operations.

Lessons to be learned?

Heritage brands have to remain relevant if they are to survive. To do this they need to be proactive in their strategy development and implementation. This did not occur with Jaeger – probably due to the frequent changes of ownership and personnel that were brought in to rejuvenate it. A failure to embrace online retailing in time also led to its demise.

Do not confuse your target market. Consistent discounting does not square up with a claim of being a premium brand.

Maybe we should accept that every brand has a lifespan.

RIP Jaeger!