Final Debenhams Stores Shut in End of an Era

May 15, 2021 Updated: May 15, 2021

Once the UK’s biggest department store group, Debenhams will close its remaining high street stores for the last time on May 15, 2021–242 years after it first began trading.

Fashion retailer Boohoo announced it had acquired Debenhams out of administration for £55 million pounds in January 2021. However, the deal only includes the Debenhams brand and online operations, not the retail shops or its workforce, resulting in the closure of 118 stores as part of the liquidation process and the loss of thousands of jobs.

Speaking about the closure of Debenhams stores from high streets across the UK, retail analyst Richard Hyman told NTD, “The closure of Debenhams’ physical stores, including this flagship store in London, means around 12,000 people will lose their jobs. Pandemic shutdowns proved to be too much for the already struggling retailer.”

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Retail analyst Richard Hyman speaks to NTD in London on May 12, 2021. (NTD/Screenshot)

“Debenhams has been a weak business for many, many years; the clock has been ticking for an awful long time. Meanwhile, some other department stores have done much better, have invested more in the infrastructure of their businesses in the shopping experience, in the quality of the product, and they have fared better, all be it still had to face a hit from the pandemic,” Richard commented.

Debenhams had significant plans to expand its physical presence in the retail market and in 2006 plans were announced to double the number of stores to 240. New stores were being opened as recently as 2017, but with the shift in trend to online shopping, the group struggled with falling profits and laden debts.

In March 2020 the group was forced to close all stores when the country went into national lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.  By April 2020, with no footfall in its high street stores, and solely reliant on online trade, the Debenhams Group had called in Administrators for the second time in two years.

It’s a familiar pattern being seen in high streets nationwide. In February this year, online retailer ASOS bought the Topshop and Miss Selfridge brands, but not their physical stores (pdf).

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Executive chairman Tony Mallin speaks to NTD in London on May 12, 2021. (NTD/ Screenshot)

Customers have mixed feelings towards the closure of Debenham stores. Tony Mallin, an executive chairman, told NTD, “I think it’s a shame, but I think the pandemics just accelerated what was happening anyway, people’s shopping habits are becoming more convenient for the individual rather than convenient to the shop owner, and things have to move in that direction. If you lag behind and think things are going to move backwards, you’re going to lose out.”

Town planner Susan Dawson said in an interview, “I think it’s quite sad, everything’s very empty and desolate. I think it’ll be an opportunity to maybe look at retail spaces and offices and change the way we live.”

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Town planner Susan Dawson speaks to NTD in London on May 12, 2021. (NTD/ Screenshot)

Debenhams might be disappearing from the high street, but the iconic brand will still continue online. Mahmud Kamani, Executive Chairman of the Boohoo Group, commented in a statement (pdf) that the acquisition was a huge step in its ambitions to create “the UK’s largest marketplace.”

According to the group’s plan, the Debenhams website will continue to operate for an agreed period of time, before the group rebuild and relaunch the platform in spring 2022, and mark the start of a new chapter in the history of this iconic UK retailer.

Reporting by Jane Werrell of NTD.