“Do a bit of Debenhams” was one of the more recent slogans used by the ailing high street chain in an attempt to relaunch itself a couple of years back. Now Debenhams is nearly done, the brand bought by online retailer BooHoo for £55m, the physical shops due to all be closed by mid - May. About 12,000 people are being made redundant. On 21 January a court issued a winding up order against Debenhams and appointed the Official Receiver as liquidator. On 25 January the name and website only were snapped up by BooHoo but the shops were not part of the deal. After so called non- essential retail shops were allowed to open last week Debenhams stores started a closing down sale with some items being offered for as much as 70% off.
The pandemic lockdowns merely accelerated a decline that had started because of online shopping and the sky high rents landlords charge for retail property in the UK. Even if Covid hadn’t happened Debenhams probably had three more years at best. In the end the final blow came when the store’s main concession supplier Arcadia itself went into administration in November 2020. Debenhams had already been in administration earlier in the year and in 2019 (as well as having announced a record loss in 2018), so was on shaky ground and Arcadia’s collapse caused rescue talks with JD Sports to collapse. A sorry end for a retailer whose roots go back to 1778 when it began life as a drapery store. Yet trawl through its knotty history of ownership and you find a number of pinch points where the business seemed to be struggling. I don’t know if Debenhams ever actually had a golden era as most well known businesses do and certainly latterly it seemed to have trouble keeping pace with trends.
I went to our Debenhams today to mooch through the dying embers and there is always something sad about these experiences. One of the main reasons why a lot of stores are closing is lack of footfall yet whenever one has a closing down sale the place is packed with eager shoppers. People who have probably not set foot in Debenhams for years. Where were they when the business needed them? When the announcement was made there was a collective disappointment but then if you read the messages they were mostly along the lines of `what a shame its closing, of course I hardly ever go there`. As it happens, I’ve bought a lot of things from Debenhams over the years- clothes, kitchen items, bedding and its very good for Xmas present ideas. Their restaurant does a tasty fish and chips too! We’ve actually only had a Debenhams here for about 13 years after it opened as part of the huge city centre Liverpool One development in a purpose built shop. With a curved glass exterior it has become a landmark store and it is difficult to see who or what can fill the space in its current form.
There is always a familiar choreography to closing down sales and this one follows suit. Everything Must Go they declare while in this case the Store Closing signs are rather puzzlingly sub headed This Store Only when of course it is every store that is going. There are big red signs everywhere with prices continually marked down to the point where eventually the staff just use felt tip pens to signal the latest reduction. Rows and rows of untidy items strewn around the shop. Facilities not working though at least the escalators are. I remember when Virgin Records had their closing down sales they turned the escalators off!
In some places Debenhams was their last department store so the sense of loss was even greater. There’s a place called Southport about twenty miles from Liverpool. A seaside town it has now lost most of its big shops. Their Debenhams which I used to visit before we had one , went last year as did their other department stores Beales. What will happen to a place like that full of large empty shop units?
When I was a child there seemed to be endless department stores including Liverpool’s grandest example Lewis’s (no relation to John Lewis). Located on a prominent junction opposite the Adelphi Hotel as you enter the city centre, Lewis’s was like another world. You could spend a whole day there. There were entire floors devoted to carpets and flooring or women’s clothing or gifts or decorating things and so on. It had three restaurants and a legendary Xmas grotto. As well as that we had Blacklers, Owen Owen, Littlewoods, George Henry Lee, Woolworths, Binns. All gone now.
Debenhams will go on of course online but there is no character to a website, no sense of experience. As Boohoo is essentially aimed at the under 30s I can’t imagine it will be of much interest to the majority of Debenhams customers in any case. You can’t really browse online like you can in a physical shop. You have to search for something specific or surrender to those algorithms that can never quite replicate the meanderings of the human brain. So it won’t really be Debenhams, all that BooHoo have actually bought is the name and website and it will linger alongside other digital ghosts from high streets past. They’ll launch a new look site which will bear no resemblance to the business whose name it uses.
I can’t imagine ever buying clothes online because there is no way a website can let you feel the material, properly see the fit or try the item on. I have enough trouble with shoes in an actual shop! Shoes can be the right size but until you try them you can’t tell if the fitting is right or not. I’m not sure how online can ever match that unless they invent some software where you can try a shoe virtually but your foot feels what it will be like. And returning things you’ve bought online is such a drawn out process that I probably wouldn’t even bother and just chuck the item in a charity collection.
So in Liverpool we are left with just John Lewis, a curious business that everyone says is expensive yet has traded for decades being never knowingly undersold. Will it survive? Well based on my personal theory that what we are witnessing with physical shops is a whittling down to one of each type I imagine it might. With no rivals left now in most places it has a free run. Just like HMV became the last record shop, so John Lewis could become the last department store. Wait till the clothes shops battle it out…