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BHS – could Design have saved them?

April 28, 2016

UK high street chain BHS has gone into administration this week, with its 174 stores across the country set to close their doors.

BHS was founded in 1928 as British Home Stores by a group of US entrepreneurs who apparently wanted to follow the successful model set by Woolworths.

The business expanded heavily in the 1970s and 1980s, adopting the BHS branding and opening a series of stores in shopping malls and out-of-town locations, as well as the high street.

Millennium Stores concept

In 1995 it launched the Millennium Stores concept, developed with 20.20. The new design work, which launched in Cambridge with a floor-to-ceiling glass frontage and central atrium, was described by BHS marketing director Helena Packshaw as “embracing a whole new approach to space, lighting and colour.”

However, roll-out of the £25m concept was taken over by BHS’s in-house team in 1997 and in 2000 BHS was sold by its owner Storehouse to Arcadia founder Phillip Green for £200 million.

In 2005 BHS resurrected the British Home Stores branding and introduced a new store design created by consultancy Carte Blanche, who reportedly worked with Philip Green’s wife Tina on the in-store look.

Brand sold for just £1

Following a number of management changes and a further rebrand in 2010, Philip Green sold BHS to Retail Acquisitions for a nominal fee of £1 in 2015.

The chain closed a number of stores an on 25 April announced it had gone into administration.

We ask retail design experts where they think BHS went wrong and what could have been done to salvage the former UK high street icon.

“The high street is the most democratic of environments – shoppers vote with their feet. The demise of BHS is a lesson in not putting design and customer experience at the heart of your offer.

The store environment is like stepping back in time, their presence on social media is as uninspiring as their product range and the website is as generic as their identity.

How could they have got it so wrong when the competition are investing in getting right? John Lewis has a dedicated team looking at technology and omni-channel experience, Debenhams is collaborating with influential designers (Jasper Conran vs Holly Willoughby… go figure!) and Zara’s responsive and remorseless speed to market.

Sometimes you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone – sadly not in this instance.”

Stuart Wood, co-founder, Missouri Creative

“The clue to what went wrong is in the name. British HOME Stores. If Arcadia had developed its home product base and not tried to push clothing so heavily then I think that BHS might have stood a chance.

Think about it. They were always known for their lighting offer, there was a really good chance of rivalling IKEA – BHS was on the high street and the Swedes were not. Habitat has never attracted the mass market, which BHS always appealed to.

Design wise? Think Ikea crossed with Crate & Barrel, with a touch of Pitfield.”

Callum Lumsden, creative director, Lumsden


Broke by old creatives

The collapse of any major high street retailer sends shock waves across a host of industries. It will pull down dozens of key suppliers and leaves a gap in the market for others to fill.


Fundamentally that gap is what has caused this collapse.

There was no design migration going in or out of BHS for over a decade and stepping into the store just made you want to get right out again.

With the essentials of store experience and online ease of sales gone, it was simply a matter of time.


Designers create opportunity and winning ideas. With a dynamic creative team it is possible to turn the tide in less time it takes to swig an espresso. Design creates luck too which every winner harnesses and exploits.


So what happened? Why didn’t the design staff simply tell the management to get fucked?? BHS failed because the designers lacked the guts to take it on and take control.


As a designer you have to say ”This way will fail… this is not going to happen.


The problem in retail is the designers are simply MOR, perception starved and uncreative.


Get wrecked, hang with gangsters but don’t dull the market to death.


Until retail design teams start acting like real designers more collapses will follow as the game changes.



But perhaps the greatest risk today for UK retail and hospitality is getting through the day with a lack of ever clarifying design to market coordination and street fed idea migration.

The new market hates stagnation and pause. It thrives on change, experimentation and exploration… it even tolerates failure when accompanied by innovation and creative risk.


Failing to see this is commonplace.


The way forward it to flip inside out your old beige BHS pullover mindset and realise the game has become home to those who are liberated of confines and fly free.


A new form of design

Yep the days of most comfort zone design methods are fast numbered. It’s needing to happen on the handset and via email hosts, servers, Insta and user touchpoints.

Major product and brand design needs to be built on the hoof or Overground as it’s seen and dreamed.. on demand.

Interaction needs to become truly responsive and not just shells or crumbs.


Light Drive is the design gamechanger.


Chatting to a buddy in design very recently he had this to say:

”The corp client wants to see that the design platform is stable and that precludes visible collaboration of clustered brilliant minds… they just don’t want to see this..”

Things need to change. Design needs a redesign. The drivers are the winners.


Designers are dead without the right drive.




Nick Garrett






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