Requiem For A Retailer, Why Debenhams Is Now Just Occupying Space On Our High Streets

Perennial strugglers, Debenhams department store group, announced today that it is to cut 2,500 more jobs as it battles to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

This is in addition to the 4,000 job cuts announced since May, meaning the retailer will have cut a third of its workforce.

The cuts will be mainly across its UK stores and distribution centre, but worryingly, it said that no new stores were planned to be closed, meaning that customer service, store standards, merchandising, and so on, in the 124 reopened since lockdown, are only likely to go in one direction.

Debenhams said that the current trading environment for retailers was still “a long way from returning to normal” — translation; “we don’t have a clue other than cutting costs”.

It’s hard not to have sympathy for the loyal staff at Debenhams who won’t simply be able to parachute into another retail job, such is the nature of the sector currently.

But it’s a truth that Debenhams has been struggling for years, going into administration for the second time in April this year, it may very well remain there for the foreseeable future as prospective purchasers (any takers?) monitor their performance over the coming months and the key Christmas peak trading period.

However, if Debenhams was a patient in intensive care, its life support would have been turned off long ago. And it all begs the question, do we really want a Debenhams on the high street? After all, it seems even they have pretty much given up all hope.

It was only in September 2018 that their new store in the Intu Watford shopping centre opened to much fanfare, the company at the time exclaiming that, “It is the first in the country to feature Debenhams newly redesigned Beauty Hall of the Future which is modern, easy to navigate and houses interactive space where customers can browse, discover and experiment with products from established beauty houses and breakthrough brands”.

In June, less than two years later, Debenhams announced that the store would be permanently closing. So if they can’t be bothered, why should we? After all, it’s not as if the space can’t be reused.

On Edinburgh’s Princes Street the old store site consideration is being given to redeveloping it as a luxury hotel with a rooftop bar, enjoying views overlooking the City. And it’s not simply hotels, residential, gyms, fulfillment centres, smaller retail and hospitality outlets would all fill the space vacated by Debenhams stores so much more effectively.

The reality is that the transformation of our high streets needs, amongst other things, imagination, innovation and visionary thinkers. In other words, the very antitheis of what Debenhams has become.

However, sad to say, the stark truth is that what it doesn’t need any longer, is a Debenhams.

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Andrew Busby

Andrew Busby

Global Industry Leader Retail at Software AG, founder Retail Reflections, best selling author, former Forbes contributor, global retail influencer.