More than half of the 160 BHS stores that closed after the retailer fell into administration a year ago are still sitting empty, according to new research. BBC business correspondent Emma Simpson visits one former site in south east London.This time last year Mandy Pickering and the other BHS staff in Bexleyheath, were selling off every last fixture and fitting they could.BHS was in its final hours, with nearly 90 years of trading about to come to an end. Now though, she’s back on the same shop floor, but the space has been transformed. Another, smaller, department store chain, Morleys has moved in. “It’s the best thing that could’ve happened to this place,” says Mandy.
She’s one of around half a dozen former BHS staff who are now working for Morleys at this store in London. After 18 years at BHS, Sandy Glavin has also joined Mandy in working for Morleys.”It’s like moving out of a house, having it refurbished, and moving back in,” says Sandy.”We’re very lucky. Morleys obviously saw the potential and made it so, so better – and everyone in the area thinks so as well.” It was also a great outcome for the new owners of the shopping centre where Morleys is now based.
Allan Lockhart, property director at NewRiver REIT, says: “We acquired Broadway shopping centre in April 2016, shortly before BHS fell into administration, which could’ve created a large, unattractive vacancy at our shopping centre.”However, we immediately began working closely with the council [the freeholder] to swiftly secure a desirable new anchor store.”The introduction of a Morley’s department store has been a big success, signalling revitalisation and a vote of confidence for the town.”Not every former BHS location has been so fortunate though, with 82% of the sites still unoccupied, according to new research by the Local Data Company, which tracks occupancy and vacancy rates across all of the UK’s main shopping destinations.This drops to 60% or 96 shops if you strip out the stores which do have agreements in principle for the space to be taken, or are awaiting planning permission for redevelopment.
Meanwhile, four stores have been demolished. One year on since the final BHS stores closed, only 25 have been re-let.So why have some stores been easier to occupy than others?”I think it is a reflection of the challenges many high streets face, ” says Local Data Company director, Matthew Hopkinson.”If you look at where retail has moved, much of it has gone to out of town retail parks and shopping centres. In other words, the traditional retailers who would’ve occupied a BHS have often moved elsewhere.”Many of these units were also very large, with multiple floors, and costly to re-occupy. ”
Stockport’s BHS is one of the sites still stubbornly empty, taking up a large corner of the Merseyway shopping centre. The local council is investing hundreds of millions of pounds to revitalise the town centre. It recently bought the shopping centre, a 1960s style complex which had been starved of investment and ended up in receivership, as part of its regeneration plans. It doesn’t own the BHS store, but its leader, Alex Ganotis, is convinced the vacant site has potential.”It just doesn’t look good that we’ve got a store this size in the middle of the Merseyway Shopping Centre,” says Mr Ganotis.
“It’s a successful centre with 95% of units let, with high levels of footfall. We feel this store could easily be re-let.”And he is prepared to consider alternative uses for the site.”Let’s have a conversation,” says Mr Ganotis. “The council is willing to work with anyone who has new and imaginative ideas as we do to transform this area.”It could be re-let as just one store or split up in to a number of different stores or it could be used for other purposes, like leisure.”
Creative solutions are being found.The BHS store on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, for instance, is set to be transformed into a hotel with a rooftop restaurant, as well as retail on the ground floor. And in Taunton, a gym is being planned for the upper level of its former BHS store. Mr Hopkinson says: “I think we’ve got to face the brutal facts that the councils and the landlords have got to come together and plan alternative uses.”That could be food or beverage or it could be leisure, or it could be re-occupied as accommodation. But they won’t be re-occupied as shops in the current climate,”For some town centres, the consequences of the BHS collapse may be felt for many months if not years to come.