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In-Depth: What does a department store-less town look like?

Marcus Jaye
23 April 2021

Department store chains have come and gone before. Many stores’ names became amalgamated, swallowed up and disappeared thanks to the larger chains’ lofty expansion ambitions during the 20th century. However today, many mid-size British towns and cities are facing a completely department store-less future for the first time in living memory.

When Debenhams finally shuts its doors, many towns will be without a department store for the first time in possibly hundreds of years. Towns like Northampton or Hastings are without something that seemed vital only a few decades ago.

No doubt these towns will survive, but it begs the question, is the department store just another thing we don’t need any more or is there room for a new, smaller version? What else could replace them and will this be an opportunity for these towns to radically rethink their futures?

Kevin Boorman, Marketing and Major Projects Manager, Hastings Borough Council, says, the town is keen to bring its vacant Debenhams back into use as soon as it can. He says: “The town is disappointed to see the store [Debenhams] go, and we have had expressions of sadness from those who may not have even visited the store for years. The council is in discussion with the relatively new owners of the building to bring it back into use as soon as possible. We are pleased that they are also approaching many local organisations and businesses for new solutions.”

“All town centres across the country face a challenging future, however, the trick is to both offer what the shoppers themselves want and to encourage provision of other types of uses of buildings and assets in the town centre,” Boorman says.

So what might Hastings replace its Debenhams with? “It is too early to say, but it is a large and imposing building in the centre of the town, and we would like to see it put to good use. We are working with the new owners to enable them to develop their ideas with as much support as possible,” Boorman says.

“We aim to ensure that the town offers not just what the local community needs but also something to entice businesses, people and visitors from further away. We are lucky in Hastings to have lots of unique independent shops, as well as large retail chains, which offer something different for shoppers, this offers a great foundation to build on for our town centre,” he adds.

The University of Gloucester has acquired this former Debenhams store

Property agent, Savills, estimates the UK has 142 million square feet of vacant retail space, equivalent to 12.6% of all retail units. Plans have already been announced by councils and landlords on how to reuse some of the excess space vacated by department store chains.

Proposals so far include Leicester’s Highcross shopping centre, which is building 338 flats on the site of the former Debenhams store, while Exeter’s Princesshay has applied to the council to a house a four-screen cinema across several floors, selling alcohol, food and drink. Gloucestershire University has bought Gloucester’s old Debenhams store to use as lecture halls. Students are expected to begin studying there by September 2023.

In a more radical move, Stockton Council has plans to demolish its “Castlegate Centre” in 2022 after council leaders backed a masterplan to convert the High Street site into a “riverside park”. A five-acre park with trees, art installations and a land-bridge to the River Tees has been lined up in place of the 1970s shopping centre.

Stockton's radical new town centre plans involve demolishing a 1970s shopping centre

Jonathan Kent, a broadcaster, journalist and author who has written about retail and worked with retail technology companies, says: “We may find ourselves rethinking our town and city centres and asking ourselves some very fundamental questions about the ‘why’ of their existence.

We’re already seeing small villages that used to support two or three shops now having none at all. There’s no guarantee that larger villages and small towns couldn’t go the same way,” he says.

But he believes that people still want physical retail stores. “Online shopping is less convenient than it looks at first sight,” says Kent, “Having 10,000 choices on Amazon is not always a good thing. We need someone to narrow down the choices for us or we suffer from what’s called decision fatigue. Good retailers know how much choice we want and need.”

There’s a real possibility that old department stores could be converted or demolished (possibly with their facades being retained where they’re architecturally significant). For property developers it’s probably the most attractive option. The predominant property business model at the moment seems to be to build apartments that are bought by foreign investors to stand empty. That benefits developers but barely anyone else. However local councils can take a view on whether proposals meet the needs of the community. They could refuse permission for change of use from retail for instance,” says Kent.

“We’ve seen successful models before. The old Kensington Market or Hyper Hyper on Kensington High Street or the Carnaby Street Flea Market that was eventually replaced by Boots. Multi-storey buildings broken up into concessions rented to small makers and producers who sell items that can’t be found through mass market retailers. They bring atmosphere, variety and something that the internet can’t replicate,” Kent says.

How "The Whiteley" in Bayswater will look after a £1bn redevelopment

Large shops have been reinvented before. Whiteleys of Bayswater closed as a department store in 1981. In 1989 it reopened as a shopping centre. It closed again in 2018 and is currently being redeveloped into a new Foster + Partners designed £1bn residential, retail, dining and hotel complex which will contain 139 apartments and townhouses, 20 new shops and restaurants, a cinema, a large-scale gym, and a Six Senses hotel and spa - the first in Britain - with 110 rooms, as well as its “social wellness club”. Whiteleys, however, has the luxury of being in a desirable part of West London.

In Coventry, there are plans for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create a joint arts and culture facility in an old IKEA store. A national “Collections Centre” could be created through a unique partnership between Coventry City Council, Arts Council England's Arts Council Collection, Culture Coventry Trust and Coventry University, in collaboration with the Coventry City of Culture Trust. The landmark project would see Arts Council England relocate the Arts Council Collection from two current collection stores to Coventry, once the former IKEA building was redeveloped, and ties in nicely with Coventry being the UK City of Culture for 2021.

“Councils and planners will have to allow smaller, private enterprises to enter into agreements, with business rates either scrapped or incentivised to encourage small business growth."

Steve Jacob, CEO, Fabrik Invest, one of the UK’s leading property specialists, says: “Councils and planners will have to allow smaller, private enterprises to enter into agreements, with business rates either scrapped or incentivised to encourage small business growth.

“I think small, independent eateries will play a big part in the future of our town centres, from cafes and bars to dessert shops, along with a range of restaurants offering international cuisine,” he says.

“We’re also likely to see rents come down in town centres. Landlords will have to accept that earning lower rents is better than having no rent at all while their buildings stand empty. We may also see rent-free periods on offer in order that they can fill their units,” says Jacob.

“I think we’ll also see councils allowing the development of more residential homes and serviced apartments and offices in town centres, as these integrate more with commercial units. The focus will be on a series of smaller, 15-minute neighbourhoods rather than huge, sprawling centres.

“It’s likely that town centres will shrink, but there could be positive elements to that. There’s potential for landlords to reduce their business rates by breaking larger buildings up into multiple, smaller units. Renting these for a couple of hundred pounds a week gives the business a greater chance of success than trying to find a department store-sized tenant to take on a single building,” he adds.

Northampton is about to lose its only department store, which was originally Adnitt Brothers and dates back 242 years

“In terms of towns like Northampton and Hastings, shoppers will end up heading to their nearest shopping centre instead of their former department store, meaning that the high street as a whole won’t lose out; it’s more that the department store spending will now be spread across other retailers. People will continue to want to go out and wander round the shops at the weekend, as much for entertainment as for purchasing.

“When others run from a certain sector, I always look for the value within it. This means that I’m looking closely at office and retail space right now – there are definitely opportunities there to be part of the reinvention of town centres over the coming years,” says Jacob.

It’s not all bad news for the department store sector. A new, smaller type of store, mostly concession lead, is rising from the ashes. Beales has reopened its Poole store with a second opening pencilled in for Peterborough, a town that recently lost its John Lewis. New retailer “1517”, has opened mini department stores in Worthing and Ayr, with further openings in Harlow, Corby and Kirkcaldy planned. Its website says: “We are not just a concession space, we offer experiences and services that draw people in for a few hours and not just a quick one-off purchase.”

Beales has reopened its Poole store with a new approach

Even John Lewis has made noises about smaller replacement stores in Sheffield and Aberdeen to replace the full-line ones they are closing.

One retailer bucking the department store closing trend is Sandersons Boutique. Founded in 2016 by husband-and-wife, Mark and Deborah Dransfield, their idea was for a boutique department store offering “something different” from the high street department store. Their flagship store opened in the heart of Sheffield, located on Fox Valley retail park in Stocksbridge, with a second store in Morpeth located at Sandersons arcade and Stroud due to open “in April 2021, all selling national and independent brands across ladieswear, menswear, fragrance, bags and accessories, gifts, shoes, and homeware.

Mark Dransfield, CEO of Sandersons Boutique, explains: “Department Stores are the big footfall drivers, they house small footprints of high street brands which generally cannot afford to rent a standalone high street store. They are home to an eclectic mix of fashion, fragrance, cosmetics, homeware and usually supported by a café.

“The retail industry and our high streets are constantly evolving, so although the closure of a town’s last department store may feel like the end of an era, it’s a great opportunity to start a new era,” he says.

“As human beings we are social animals, and after the restrictions of the last year I truly believe that there will be a resurgence and the demand for our towns to offer a mix of uses including experiential retail, leisure facilities, exciting food and drink outlets, beautiful public spaces and innovative architecture,” Dransfield continues.

“This may not look exactly like it has done in the past, some town centres are quite sporadic so having everything in one place is one idea to explore. Also, town centre living is something that is becoming more and more popular, creating high quality spaces for people to live close to local amenities brings an exciting edge to any town centre.

Sandersons Boutique, Morpeth

“At Sandersons, we pride ourselves on employing local people who have good relationships with our custom base. We travel the world sourcing brands and always try to work with other family businesses.

We are advocates of experiential retail and the theatre you can create in a retail environment. Another really important part of what makes us successful is our staff training programmes. We ensure that our staff are all trained to the highest standard and have exceptional product knowledge, which in turn means our shoppers receive honest and valuable advice when shopping with us, making them feel special and that they have received good value for money.

“We plan to open our third store in the Cotswolds town of Stroud this April, and the Sunday Times has announced this is the best place to live in Britain!” he says.

“We are looking to expand our business even further over the forthcoming years and we have very strict criteria when looking for our next location, which include being maximum 30 minutes away from a major city, a catchment of 150,000 within a 15 minute drive time of primarily ABC customers, free or cheap car parking nearby, ideally next to good transport links to rail, bus and road and lastly and to be part of the fabric of the wider town centre.

“We have worked collaboratively to introduce a number of key, exciting brands - so our customers have lots of newness for when we reopen in April,” he says.

These small department stores mirror the origins of the sector before it got taken over by big, corporate chains. Having a direct influence of a founder or business owner means more to customers and they can respond to the local market better. Using the concession type model reduces head office costs and shares some of the risk.

One thing to remember is most towns share customers with other towns, nothing exists isolation, so it’s important to offer something different from what already exists or enough for people to want to travel to it.

Councils and landlords need to look at the last department store leaving as an opportunity. A clean sheet for something different, rather than wishing or pretending things were just like they used to be. They’ll be many exciting ideas and proposals in the pipeline, but it will be those brave enough, and the ones which catch the public’s imagination, that will propel these towns forward.

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