It’s too easy to dismiss the collapsing retailer as out of date. In truth it has been bled dry by some very modern British business practices
It’s BHS RIP. If not quite yet, then, after the move into administration on Tuesday, surely soon enough. The corporate obituaries almost write themselves. Cue headlines about “the way we used to shop”, pictures of brass pendant lights and easy-care checked shirts; memories of sausage ’n’ chips washed down with tea at the in-store cafe; and retail sector analysts sharing expertise about how out-of-town malls, e-commerce and supermarkets that peddle kitchenware have done for the all-purpose store on the high street. That B, standing for British, is another emblem of how anachronistic BHS had become – a throwback to a less individualistic era, when a shop could sell itself as a national champion. To sum up the easy story here, time’s tide has simply washed BHS away.
But the suggestion this account carries – that the 11,000 staff now facing the future with dread are the inevitable victims of unavoidable change, people for whom nobody was ever going to be able do all that much – needs to be challenged. For the reality is that, even if the retail aspect of the BHS story strikes a dated note, the financial dealings behind the scenes are bang up to date, typifying the ugly realities of the modern British way of doing business. In recent weeks, the Guardian has highlighted what happened after aggressive and footloose finance acquired one trusted name on the high street, Boots, in 2007. Its stores were weighed down with mighty debts, and then the liabilities serviced by sweating the staff and maximising payments from the NHS, whether or not its patients needed the services billed for. Like Boots, BHS always used to be seen as dependable and unexciting. Like Boots, too, fate was to match it with a proprietor who was neither of these things, and rather earlier in the BHS case.