The Debenhams store estate was one of the greatest retail losses of 2020. Founded in 1778, the department store brand saw its heaviest loss in 2018, leading to the announcement of a pre-pack administration in 2019 and administration a year later, citing the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic as the final straw. As some stores closed for good, others remained open to shift remaining stock. January 2021 saw online retailer Boohoo announce that it had bought the Debenhams brand and website. The remaining physical stores closed in May.
What Debenhams had already begun to see even before the first lockdown was a move towards new consumer habits: greater online spend and a move away from traditional department store models. There were already indications that the role of physical stores was to change. The 160 units left vacant by Debenhams provide an opportunity to visualise the future of large high street and shopping centre spaces in Britain.
Of the 48 stores that have been selected for re-letting or repurposing so far, 14 are open and operating. The biggest new occupier in this group is Next with its Beauty & Home format, with four stores open in Reading, Gateshead, Milton Keynes and Watford and two more stores planned for other ex-Debenhams sites. 6 of the 14 retailers currently open- the Next stores, The Range and Factory Outlet- are in the Home & Garden category, a category that was boosted last year by the rising popularity of home improvement over lockdown.
Other established brands who have taken on vacant Debenhams units include retailers M&S and Boots. Some new occupiers will be department stores, most notably 1517, which is taking up units in Kirkcaldy and Canterbury, along with an ex-BHS unit in Ayr. The retailer has eight department stores in the pipeline, including ex-Arcadia units in Cardiff and Corby. What is unique about 1517 is that it focuses on housing independent brands, reflecting one of our most significant reported trends: independent retailers have grown in resilience, supported by ‘shop local’ initiatives, home working, government support for commercial occupiers and public concern around ethical supply and manufacture. In terms of retail, these large spaces may only be feasible for large brands, but occupiers seem to have taken current trends into account, with offers that appeal to today’s shopper.
Other uses reflect the changing face of high streets and shopping centres: of the 20 stores chosen for non-retail uses, 8 are to be repurposed for housing, 4 are to be demolished for redevelopment, 3 are to become health centres or hospitals and one is to become a mixed-use office and retail space. The ex-Debenhams site in Gloucester has been bought by the University of Gloucestershire for use as a campus. We are beginning to see these locations become more like community hubs than retail destinations: partly driven by working from home, high streets could become places to live, work and play. The ‘15-minute city’ concept developed in Paris- in which most daily necessities can be reached within a 15-minute walk or cycle from home- has gained some traction here, so we could expect to see more former Debenhams units adapted for essential community services, work and residential purposes.
It is important to remember that the last stores in the ex-Debenhams estate only closed in May this year. It is still early and, as a result, 112 stores are yet to find a new use or occupier. It will take time to reopen and repurpose sites, but new occupiers are being announced all the time; just last week, Dunelm announced that they had taken a lease on the Flemingate store in East Yorkshire. Patterns are already emerging, and we might expect a continuation of the trends above, a mixture of well-known brands equipped to take on large spaces and cater to the latest buying trends and new, non-retail uses that reflect the changing use of retail locations.
(We may not have seen the last of Debenhams on the high street yet, though: this June, Boohoo chief executive John Lyttle told The Times that some beauty brands wouldn’t supply products to Debenhams unless it had a physical store presence, which could result in a beauty store outside London bearing the Debenhams name.)
At the time of writing, some plans remain unconfirmed. Information is correct as of 18th October 2021.