Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

BHS, the dowdy department store, will live to fight another day.

The struggling privately owned retailer has been given a lifeline after landlords voted  to approve a restructuring that would ease its rent burden.

The company's near miss can only partly be seen as consequence of the 15 years it spent under the leadership of retail entrepreneur Sir Philip Green, when it never got its groove back after falling out of fashion, and received limited investment (though he did manage to extract at least 200 million pounds ($283 million) of dividends for himself). Green sold it for one pound a year ago to a little-known group of accountants and lawyers.

There are broader forces troubling European retailers, and they proved too much for BHS, which is saddled with long leases -- up to 100 years in one case -- and was stuck paying high rents it had agreed to many years ago. It's now negotiating either rent reductions or lease terminations for about 40 of its 164 stores.

Across the continent, the trend for sales of everything from clothes to cushions to migrate online is picking up. Of course, with the rise of Amazon, BHS and other variety stores selling a huge range of products have been living on borrowed time -- Woolworths succumbed to the trend in 2008.

Clicks Away
The online share of European total retail sales is growing
Source: Euromonitor

But mobile transactions are the new wrinkle. Online sales account for about 13.5 percent of U.K. sales, according to AT Kearney, ahead of about 10 percent in the U.S. The addition of mobile has turbocharged demand, and goods are now as likely to be bought by the tap of a smartphone screen as a click of a mouse. That's putting even more pressure on retailers to make sure their stores are put to good work, and many are finding they can't.

High street retailers are aware they're saddled with too much space: according to Euromonitor, non-grocery selling space in western Europe fell to 445 million square meters in 2015 from 453 million in 2010. And efforts to tighten up are not confined to Europe. In the U.S., Gap, as well as department stores J.C. Penney, Sears and Macy's are among those closing stores. 

Spaced Out
European non-food retailers are trimming their selling space
Source: Euromonitor

Even Spain's Inditex, which owns the Zara chain, is growing its space more slowly. It has strong brands, accelerating sales and virtually no debt, and has realized that the combination of flagship stores in prime locations and an online presence is a winning one. So if even Inditex has decided to rein in store openings, others should take note.  

Some U.K. retailers, such as Mothercare, Dixons Carphone and Home Retail Group, have been prepared to take an ax to their store bases. But others have been slower.

Marks & Spencer, another British department store chain trying to revive its brand, has slightly increased its rate of store closures. But Steve Rowe, its incoming chief executive, should take this further. Debenhams, a department store chain that has endured a torrid time over the past few years, has even been opening new stores while at the same time trying to fill excess space in existing units. 

BHS is also saddled with a significant pension deficit, something that many European firms are having to deal with. The company was slow to address the issue and will now spend the next six months in discussions with Britain's pensions regulator on whether its shortfall of about 200 million pounds to 300 million pounds can be reduced. This is a significant challenge that could yet prove fatal for BHS.

Here at least, many listed retailers are ahead of the game, having already taken steps to bolster their pension funds. But all companies face a continued funding squeeze from ever-lower government bond yields, so this issue isn't going away. 

So BHS soldiers on. Its near-death experience should be a warning to European retailers not to ignore unwieldy store portfolios in the online age, and to stay on top of pension obligations. They shouldn't start feeling smug about dodging the bullets that BHS has only barely missed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net