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BHS & Austin Reed Retail Failures: Are Clicks More Important than Bricks?

Posted by Tim on 02-Jun-2016 15:30:04

The recent high profile failures of menswear retailer Austin Reed and the failure today of the administrators at BHS (British Homes Stores in the old days!) to find a buyer for this struggling business, have seen their digital sales performance highlighted as a major part of their decline. Industry commentators have said that their digital offering just wasn’t up to the standard today’s consumers demand.

What was wrong with the BHS & Austin Reed websites?

They just weren’t very good. No doubt a large amount of money went into them but they weren’t engaging with the audiences.
If you look at’s visitor numbers from organic and paid search for the last 2 years you can see they pretty much flat-lined in a sector that was growing rapidly. website traffic from organic search traffic from paid & organic search

BHS’s website traffic numbers were way higher and had grown from 1.5 to 2 million in the last two years, but it had achieved the 2 million number of visitors from organic search per month by December 2014 and was just oscillating around this figure since.

BHS website search traffic before failure for 2 years traffic from paid & organic search

Don’t be just a shop home page before going bust Austin Reed homepage - click to view

One thing that both of these sites have in common is that they were both just shops. Just being the important word. There was no blog and no apparent focus on a content strategy to try and offer visitors more value. BHS had a Be Inspired section but the non-product content seemed largely overwhelmed by pushing offers. This means they just stuck a shop on the internet and expected everyone to love buying from it.
 & organic search performance

BHS website home page before it went bust homepage - click to view

The two companies had differing success in their organic search, although it isn’t fair to compare two very differently sized companies with just the same numbers. However, Austin Reed with all of its stores and marketing spend had inbound links from a miserly 45 different domains when we last checked. That is pretty shocking in my opinion. has a more respectable 666. The difference in the search terms people are finding these sites for is stark. Austin Reed was primarily reliant on branded searches (those including the term ‘Austin Reed’. While BHS has a huge portion of branded search terms in its traffic it had non-branded success. Coming in number 6 on Google for Bridesmaid dresses which has 135,000 searches a month is a good example of where it was making in roads into online market share.

How hard to other online retailers work

If we look at some of the competitors to put these numbers into context, has nearly 12 million visitors from organic search per month, and it is working hard on its SEO with over 2,600 different domains linking to its pages. While the online online retailer might only be getting a similar amount of traffic from organic search than Next it is looking at those very generic, super high volume search terms as its targets. With a whopping 733,000+ inbound links from over 13,000 different domains this now starts putting BHS and Austin Reed’s online efforts into perspective. Now we are not saying that inbound links are the only measure of working on organic search, but with the data we can access, we can make a judgement based on these numbers.

Click & Bricks Future for Retail?

So what is the future for retailers, especially smaller ones? Is it all doom as they cannot hope to compete with the big players? No, just as small retailers have done good business on the high street for years, they can do good business online by playing to their own strengths. It is however looking like the health of a retailer is now reliant on both bricks and clicks business areas to be right. Those small retailers that are still resisting investing properly online – your days are probably numbered.

The difficulty for many retailers is that they do not have a clear view of why customer should buy from them online. They might know that the great store layouts and the helpful staff service delivers good business in physical stores, but how is this going to be delivered online. Some things cannot be delivered online such as free measuring consultations. Therefore retailers have to think about their value proposition online separately.

Good Content Can Deliver Good Value

Adding value around what a retailer sell can be achieved by adding good quality, non-product focused content. With the benefit that this is going to be helping with SEO. But this content has to have a focus on consumer benefits, not selling the latest lines or highlighting discounts like BHS did. Just as you would invest in store refits and staff training, this content you create to deliver a specific consumer experience has to be properly invested in. This takes us back to the Austin Reed and BHS stories? How much money was spent on the way their online stores looked compared with how much was spent on the content that when into those websites? I think it was looks over substance when it came to investment. This can be a problem with creative agencies, they love making things look good, but they actually have to be good to engage with the audience.

Retail is changing and as old names disappear it makes room for those businesses that do a better job in delivering value to their customers. Value is something that retailers are inherently good at. Its just that you cannot simply transpose an in-store set of USPs to online. If you are a retailer and you need help to get your online strategy delivering results you can always talk to us as we will be happy to help. Remember your online store is a very different place to your physical store(s) and your online customers may even be different to your in store customers. Well retail has never been easy has it?

Topics: PPC