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UK loses 83% of its department stores with many still vacant

Lauretta Roberts
27 August 2021

The UK has lost 83% of its department stores over the past five years following the collapse of big chains, such as Debenhams and BHS.

Figures compiled by the CoStar Group and reported by the BBC show that more than two-thirds of the former department stores remain unoccupied with 237 sites still vacant.

The commercial property information firm tracked the number of stores held by the biggest retailers from BHS and Beales to Debenhams and House of Fraser. It revealed that between them they had 467 stores in 2016 and today have just 79.

BHS collapsed in 2016 leading to the closure of 160 stores, while Debenhams had been shrinking its estate in years and finally closed its last 120 stores following its liquidation this year. Independent chain Beales collapsed in 2020 leading to the closure of 23 stores (though some branches, including one in Poole, Dorset, have reopened), while a number of House of Fraser stores were closed in the wake of its acquisition by Frasers Group (formerly Sports Direct International in 2018.

John Lewis has also announced the closure of 16 stores in the past year. Initially eight store closures were announced last year then it was revealed this year that a further eight would not reopen after lockdown. In addition it is giving over around half of the space in its Oxford Street store to be redeveloped into offices.

Marks & Spencer has also been shrinking its estate of full-range stores and its Marble Arch flagship in London will be redeveloped with space given over to offices and other facilities, such as a gym.

The large size of department stores has made redevelopment a challenge, particularly given the dampening of demand for office space in light of the pandemic.

How the new Bobby's will look

However there has been some positive news to come from the sector. The former Debenhams store in Bournemouth is to be redeveloped into an independent department store, called Bobby's, named after the original department store which stood on the site. This provides some consolation for the South Coast town, which lost its branch of Beales and a large Marks & Spencer store.

In addition, while House of Fraser has closed a number of its stores, Frasers Group is redeveloping certain strategic sites, including a branch in Belfast, into a new high end concept called Frasers. The first brand new Frasers store, based in a former Debenhams store, was recently opened in Wolverhampton. 

Frasers Wolverhampton

Another former Debenhams store has been taken over by the University of Gloucestershire to be transformed into lecture halls and training facilities for healthcare workers.

CoStar Group's Marks Stansfield told the BBC that while the large number of empty stores was a concern, they provided an opportunity for innovative developers.

"We are increasingly seeing forward-thinking real estate owners getting ahead of the problem and reshaping what are key assets in our town centres to provide a focal point for regeneration.

"I think we'll see many more plans come to light in the coming months. With these store closures come new opportunities," Stansfield said.

Read our recent feature What Does a Department Store-less Town Look Like? here.

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