Last weekend, the last of the 164 British Home Stores branches that were still in operation closed their doors. The administrators rolled down the shutters on the remains of the cut-price stock and the futures of the staff still working, who, by the end, were selling off the fixtures and fittings. Tearing down the infrastructure of the place that was your working home must have been a final turn of the screw for the thousands of remaining employees. They couldn’t leave without sacrificing their redundancy payments. They weren’t going to get transferred and get TUPE because no-one was willing to take on the chain as a going concern. They were heading for the JobCentre.
Despite the quintessentially British name, it was American businessmen who set up the shop, opening the first branch in Brixton in south London in 1928. Their model was that other now-vanished high-street name, Woolworths, where nothing cost more than sixpence. British Home Stores aimed a little loftier: nothing there cost more than one shilling. Gradually, the brand grew into one of the staples of the British high street.
Like all brands, it evolved over its 88 years of trading but eventually lost its way. I lately felt I could rely on the local branch for a good lighting section and cheap bedsheets, but saw it as a dowdier sibling to M&S for other homewares. I also didn’t believe that you could describe the clothing it retailed as “fashion”.
In April 2016, the chain collapsed into administration at the price of 11,000 jobs and the uncertain futures of 22,000 pensions. That’s a far heavier price than the Retail Acquisitions Group — headed by the previously bankrupt Dominic Chappell — paid for the stores in 2015: £1.
Now, I am not an economist but, to me, that sets off a teeny-tiny alarm bell that all was not as rosy as described.
The administrators will now sift through the company’s financial records, and examine how and why BHS went broke, and whether anyone can be held to account. Plenty of people would like certain people to be held to account. Always perfectly understandable when a yacht’s involved.
Everything must go, the signs said. Now everything has gone, and it’s not coming back.
Unless you’ve got a yacht.