Here’s a little brain teaser for you. Complete the following sequence: C&A, Littlewoods, Woolworths, BHS and…?

To me there is one obvious answer – Marks & Spencer. Of course, it won’t happen. Well, not for several years anyway, on account of M&S’s freehold property inheritance.

Its property costs as a percentage of sales are a small fraction of most of its rivals and this has disguised the fact that M&S has never been an especially profitable retailer.

“In the new digital world the endangered species are generalist retailers”

John Richards

Other candidates for my brain teaser could be House of Fraser, Debenhams and possibly even John Lewis.

The pattern across retail is clear. In the new digital world the endangered species are generalist retailers – unless they are discounters or have a very clear differentiation through a strong and respected own brand.

In the US Macy’s has already shut nearly a quarter of its stores since 2007 and in August this year announced a further 100 closures, representing 14% of its remaining branches.

Sears is closing 78 of its Sears and Kmart units, yet TJ Maxx, which includes Marshalls and HomeGoods and operates as TK Maxx in the UK, is to open 195 stores (+5%) in the coming year, while Dollar General is to open 900 new stores in the current year.

An unstoppable tide?

To blame Sir Philip Green for the demise of BHS makes as much sense as blaming King Canute for not stopping the tide coming in.

“The only possible salvation [for BHS] would have been a complete re-branding exercise”

John Richards

That’s not to say that serious mistakes were not made – there was under-investment and an inexcusable lack of due diligence in the final sale process.

In my view, the only possible salvation would have been a complete re-branding exercise along the lines of River Island (from Chelsea Girl) or Next (Joseph Hepworth).

In both retail and fast-moving consumer goods, management has a fatal reluctance to ditch tired old brands and to create something new.

It is interesting to remember that BHS was Green’s consolation prize for his failure to gain control of his main target, M&S.

Back in the late 1990s when Philip and I first looked at M&S, our starting point was a recognition that it was overspaced, particularly in the aftermath of the ill-judged acquisition of a tranche of Littlewoods stores.

Finding the core customer

Today that is an even greater issue and must be addressed in conjunction with the need to simplify and clarify the clothing offer.

Steve Rowe has rightly said retail is ‘a very simple business’, yet M&S has consistently failed to get the simple things right – notably choice and availability.

“A return to its basic philosophy is long overdue”

John Richards

It’s almost as if management are ashamed of their core customer – Mrs M&S, the 50-plus woman who shops at M&S 18 times a year – as it constantly seeks to appeal to fashionistas and young customers.

When will an M&S ad feature its core customers? A return to its basic philosophy is long overdue – classic lines that last and an emphasis on quality rather than price.

M&S may not be a mission impossible.

  • John Richards is a retail consultant and non-executive director