Startup Advice

BHS: is the high street dying, or simply changing too quickly for some?

Christian Nellemann

Christian's latest piece looks at the collapse of BHS, and what it means for UK high streets

This week, another retail giant fell – and it came as no surprise.

BHS, which employs 11,000 people across the UK, has fallen into administration. It’s the biggest high street collapse since Woolworths in 2008, and brings to its knees a retailer with a proud 88-year history.

First and foremost, the biggest concern is over job losses – it’s devastating news for BHS employees. Let’s hope that their needs are considered above all others during the negotiations over the coming weeks.

But I’m also interested in what this means for Britain’s high streets, and therefore, Britain’s small businesses. Is this, as many are saying, a sign that the high street is dying?

The high street isn’t dead, but businesses have to adapt to change

The doom-mongers are out in force.

The end of BHS means the end of the British high street, apparently. Just like Woolworths, Comet and JJB Sports did, not to mention the various retail chains hanging by a thread, like HMV and Jessops. Over and over the message has been the same: another giant has fallen, and the high street is finished.

Except it isn’t. British high streets aren’t dying: they’re changing. BHS, like HMV, is simply a victim of failing to adequately modernise. People simply shop differently nowadays, and use high streets differently. But that isn’t to say they don’t use them at all – what BHS have lost, other high street brands like Zara, Primark, Homebase and H&M have gained.

What BHS’ closure really means is that businesses can no longer rely simply on presence, history or size. BHS boasted several huge retail spaces in the most sought-after locations in the UK, but it made no difference. It didn’t adapt to change, and so its demise was inevitable.

Start-ups can fill the void

As sad as the demise of big retailers is from the point of view of job losses, we must learn from their mistakes and understand what they mean. And small, independent high street businesses can do exactly that.

Today, a new high street business doesn’t rest on its laurels. It can’t. It doesn’t create a social media strategy as an afterthought, or optimise its mobile website haphazardly. It doesn’t make it complicated to buy its produce online or fail to offer free Wi-Fi at its premises. All of this and more is at the forefront of its business plan. Increasingly, the newest, smallest businesses are the most nimble and innovative. And importantly, they’re free of the complex financial shackles that burden struggling retail giants.

They’re also vital to ensuring that UK high streets don’t become empty, awash with the carcasses of fallen retail giants. To keep high streets alive and vibrant, small businesses must continue to fill the void with new and fresh ideas. It should never be forgotten that customers regularly claim they’d rather use independent businesses over chains if it were convenient and affordable to do so. Small businesses have a head start in the hearts and minds of Britain’s shoppers, so there’s a huge opportunity to prove the doom-mongers wrong.