BHS collapsed into administration on Monday with 11,000 jobs at risk, ending days of speculation over the future of the 88-year-old business.
Staff in 164 stores across the country have been told they will be paid in full up to this Friday, but cannot be guaranteed anything beyond then.
Customers hoping to return any purchases will be disappointed as administrators stopped all refunds, and any gift vouchers still in circulation are now worth half their value.
Government business minister Anna Soubry said the chain was still open and that she hopes "a buyer will come forward", to save the biggest retail collapse since Woolworths in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis.
But questions remain over how much money the owners – including twice-bankrupt businessman Dominic Chappell – squeezed out of the business before its collapse, with around £25 million thought to go to Chappell and former owner Sir Philip Green.
Several MPs called on Green to explain himself and laid the blame for the collapse with him, accusing him of taking money out of the company during his reign.
Pension authorities will also question why previous owner Green ran up a £571 million pension deficit before selling the chain for £1 last year.
Despite the business going into administration, the Pensions Regulator will continue to question the arrangements and speak to Green over the deficit.
Green has previously said he would put £80 million into the fund, but officials want more from the billionaire.
A spokesperson for The Pensions Regulator said: “We can confirm that we are undertaking an investigation into the BHS pensions scheme to determine whether it would be appropriate to use our anti-avoidance powers.
BuzzFeed News spoke to staff, who said they remain in the dark over the company’s future and will be unlikely to return to work after Friday if they could not be guaranteed their pay.
They were also concerned about their pensions and any redundancy due.
Several meetings are understood to have taken place in stores in an attempt to allay staff fears, and administrators must give staff at least 90 days' notice of any potential redundancies.
One member of staff who has been with BHS nearly 40 years told BuzzFeed News: "I don't even have a CV. I've worked here since I was 16, so I'm going to have to write one for the first time in my life. I just hope I still get my pension."
Administrators from Duff and Phelps spent Monday morning in the company's head office on Marylebone Road, central London, finalising the details of the collapse.
They are now running the business, although chief executive Darren Topps is understood to be assisting them.
Philip Duffy and Benjamin Wiles, who will oversee the administration, said: "The group has been undergoing restructuring and, as has been widely reported, the shareholders have been in negotiations to find a buyer for the business. These negotiations have been unsuccessful.
"In addition property sales have not materialised as expected in both number and value. Consequently, as a result of a lower than expected cash balance, the group is very unlikely to meet all contractual payments.
"The Directors therefore have no alternative but to put the group into administration to protect it for all creditors. The group will continue to trade as usual whilst the administrators seek to sell it as a going concern."
Sources close to the company suggested that as many as 30 notes of interest have already been received.
BHS owner Dominic Chappell told employees in a letter on Sunday night that he was "sincerely sorry".
He said: "I would like to say it has been a real pleasure working with all of you on the BHS project, one I will never forget, you all need to keep your heads held high, you all have done a great job, but remember that it was always going to be very very hard to turn around."
However, shop floor staff told BuzzFeed News they had not received the note and laid the blame for the collapse squarely at his feet.
According to one source close to the business, Chappell is thought to be in the Caribbean. Another source added: “It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s swanning around on his yacht.”
On Monday Chappell told Press Association: "No one is to blame. It was a combination of bad trading and not being able to raise enough money from the property portfolio.
"In the end, we just couldn't reach an agreement with Arcadia over pensions."
Green's firm Arcadia, which owns Topshop and Miss Selfridge, owned BHS but sold it last year to Chappell for £1.
The company was already in heavy debt, was losing several million every year, and had a vast pension black hole.
But staff in the company’s Oxford Street flagship store appeared to lay the blame at Chappell’s door. One told BuzzFeed News: “When Philip used to own us he would visit the store every few days to check on the business.
“Dominic by comparison was only ever seen in here twice.”
Some commentators pointed out that Green had handed a large dividend to his Monaco-based wife Tina that was almost the same as the pension deficit.
Politicians called on Green to account for himself to explain £440 million dividend payments made to his wife over the 15 years the family owned the business.
The Guardian said as much as £25 million could have been taken out of BHS since the new owners bought it through a vehicle called Retail Acquisitions.
Chappell owns 90% of Retail Acquisitions, which took out £2.8 million in management fees, £2.1 million in salaries and wages, £11 million in legal and professional fees, and £10 million in interest payments.
The payments include an £8.4 million loan to Retail Acquisitions, from BHS for "professional fees" although it has been suggested that at least £1 million was used by Chappell to pay off his father's mortgage.
Some of the £7 million of the £10 million interest payments is understood to have gone to Green through his own investment firm Grovepoint.
Over the next few weeks administrators will be expected to publish details of how much money creditors are owed, and Green is thought to be a secured creditor, meaning he will be first in line for any cash rescued from the business.
John Hannett, general secretary of Usdaw, the shop workers union, said: “This is devastating news for the employees of BHS and we urge the company to change their attitude to trade unions and begin a dialogue with us at this difficult and worrying time.
“We also urge the administrators and the company to comply with the law, consult with staff and Usdaw as the union for BHS workers. We don’t want to see BHS staff locked out of discussions, sent to the back of the queue of creditors and treated like fixtures and fittings, as happened at Woolworth’s.
“The Government needs to intervene now to protect taxpayers from picking up the bill for redundancy payments and safeguard the Pension Protection Fund."
The government said it would be happy to assist Usdaw in talking with BHS management, especially since the union has not previously been recognised by the company.
Chappell and his consortium Retail Acquisitions promised to find £160 million of funding to save the chain, but were unable to raise the sum.
Sports Direct, which is owned by Mike Ashley, had been in talks to acquire a number of BHS stores over the weekend, and two sources told the Financial Times there were plans to acquire the company outright. But discussions came to nothing, with the stumbling block believed to have been the £571 million pension deficit.
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Simon Neville is business editor at BuzzFeed UK and is based in London.
Contact Simon Neville at email@example.com.
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