May 14, 2021

Debenhams: the end of an era

This last year has seem many casualties from across the retail sector but visiting Debenhams was always the highlight of my childhood shopping trips to Bristol and I have very fond memories of time spent in the store shopping with my mum. It may have lost its way in recent years but the High Street just won’t be the same without it.

But aside from the personal sentimentality at the loss of this once dominant brand, what will its loss mean for the future of retail? Many high streets and shopping centres will be left with large void units after the final closures this weekend and landlords will struggle to attract tenants to fill the space. Those who are brave and see this as an opportunity to make changes and embrace new ideas will no doubt do best when it comes to adapting the empty space for future use.

Many of the old Debenhams stores are located in beautiful historic buildings but years of neglect have taken their toll. Whilst some cities have already confirmed plans to demolish stores that are no longer fit for the modern world others are looking at adapting the existing space into something new. Artisan food halls and farmers’ markets are a popular choice, driven by the increasing demand from consumers to be able to “shop local”. These smaller pop up stalls are welcomed by businesses too, allowing them to start small and grow gradually without too large an initial outlay or the requirement to commit to a lengthy lease.

There is also great potential for mixed use redevelopment and repurposing former stores into smaller shops, restaurant outlets and even city centre homes. The planning regime is changing to make such transformations easier and, done well, this could be just the boost that some high streets need.

There can be no doubt that the future of retail has changed forever. With Debenhams now part of the Boohoo stable it hasn’t disappeared but will inevitably flex its offering for a changing market. There is, however, still a need for physical retail space. The demise of Debenhams, whilst sad, could be a catalyst for positive change to bring much needed life back to our city centres. Whilst it’s too late for Debenhams this will be critical to ensure the future survival of other retailers and hospitality outlets.


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