The devastating blow Debenhams’ closure causes to Wales’ city centres

The closure of Debenhams stores is a devastating blow to Welsh city centres where the department store had been one of the major draws bringing in shoppers.

Newport and Swansea are among those cities likely to be hardest hit by the failure to find a buying for the physical stores run by the 242-year-old department store chain, which first went into administration last April.

Carmarthen, Llandudno, Llanelli, Wrexham, Bangor and Cardiff will also struggle to fill the gap left by Debenhams as the high street struggles to find an answer to the demand for online retailing.

The chain has now announced all of its stores will close after online fashion retailer Boohoo bought the Debenhams brand for £55 million and will relaunch as an online-only operation.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we shop
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

The high street chain was formally wound up in a specialist court on Monday, with the judge describing the company as a “rudderless ship” drifting in an “ocean of insolvency”.

We spoke to people across south Wales about the impact the closure will have on their city:

Swansea

The Debenhams store in Swansea’s Quadrant Shopping Centre has been a cornerstone of the city’s retail offering for over four decades.

Generations of people have shopped for gifts, clothes, perfumes and beauty products at the flagship store, which sits in pride of place at the centre of Swansea’s largest shopping centre.

Its closure will leave a “gaping hole” in the city centre according to Sian Ifan, a Swansea resident who expressed shock at the news.

(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

She said: “It’s a sign of what is happening in Swansea and other big towns in Wales at the moment.

“The larger stores were struggling anyway because of the high (business) rates. It’s going to be a big blow for shoppers.

“When the big stores close all we get to replace them is pound shops so it’s not very inspiring to attract people here. They want to see a city that’s looking good and that looks like it has a future”.

Sian added that because of the multi-million point Copr Bay development in Swansea Marina, she believes the city centre will become more neglected if high-end retailers favour the new development.

Last year, Debenhams warned that its Swansea store was one of four stores in Wales which could close for good because they did not qualify for emergency business rates relief.

Although Swansea Council, which owns the freehold to the Quadrant, agreed to defer its business rates until March 31, 2021, the store will only now reopen to sell its remaining stock once coronavirus restrictions allow it.

Many of the people interviewed in Oxford Street on the day the closure was announced had not heard the news and were sorry to see a beloved retailer leave the city.

(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

Sandra Doolan, from Swansea, said: “It’s a shame. It’s the only major shop in Swansea. We actually went into the shop just after the staff were told [when the temporary closure was announced last year], and they were absolutely devastated.

“Some of the staff were saying they’ve been working there since they were 16 and they’re in their 60s now.”

Newport

(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

In Newport, the arrival of Debenhams was hailed as a massive coup when it became the anchor store of the newly-opened Friars Walk shopping centre in November 2015.

It marked the end of a long fight from the council leadership at the time to secure a Debenhams in the city.

And its closure comes as a particular blow after Newport City Council had stepped in to help save the store last May. You can read more about those efforts here.

At the time, the council allowed Debenhams to defer payments while a review of the store’s rateable value was undertaken. The store had a rateable value of £510,000 – £10,000 over the limit at which the Welsh Government had been granting companies a business rates holiday.

But now it appears that those attempts were in vain.

Last year, 2020, saw a number of other shops at the Friars Walk site go, including Topshop, Schuh and Tiger, but the loss of one of its major anchor tenants is the biggest blow yet for the shopping centre.

“It’s very sad news,” said shopper David Hughes, 63, on Monday following the announcement.

“With everything going online now, it emphasises the end of the normal high street shopping.

“Everyone’s at home shopping online. I feel really sad, it’s a sad day.

“I think you’ve only got to look around. I think it’s the end of the high street here. It’s finished, it’ll be like a desolate city.

(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Haydn Jones, 66, said it was a sad end to Debenhams’ time in Newport.

“It’s a sad day. There were such high hopes here for Friars Walk when it opened, you know. Crowds of people, it was on the TV, all that.

“I used to go into the cafe in Debenhams all the time. I think there being a cafe and shop there was a big draw for people.”

See what’s going on in your area here:

Mr Jones said he thought there were very few shops that could fill the empty space.

He said: “I don’t know what you can put in there now. I mean, we’ve got a Sports Direct already, we’ve got all the sports shops.

“At one point in Newport, we had eight shoe shops, five CD shops. Back in the ‘90s, it was buzzing. On a Saturday afternoon it was just buzzing, you’d have to avoid it.

“We then had a sort of mini-recession after that. I don’t know what’s going to happen to Newport now really.”

Tracy Stokes pictured on Monday
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Tracy Stokes runs La Belle Femme fashion shop on Llanarth Street, only a stone’s throw from Friars Walk. She said the news was a massive blow.

“It’s going to have a massive knock-on effect for Newport, because that’s what Newport wanted and needed. Why does everything have to go online? There are people that don’t do online.”

“I think the footfall will drop dramatically. I think we need to get independents in to fill the empty units, and Friars Walk needs to do something to get people in. Because that was purpose-built for Debenhams.

“I think they’ve got to cater for both shoppers, online and the ones that like a personal touch when they go into a store.

“We don’t know when we can open, we don’t know what’s going to happen. I think the rents should be reduced at the shopping centre, it doesn’t give scope to any business to open anytime, even in the circumstances we’re in at the moment.”

Shopper Clare Lewis
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Shopper Clare Lewis, 47, said she was shocked to hear of Debenhams’ closure.

“I love that shop. Alright, people say it is expensive and it can be, but you can look around.

“You could sit down, have a cup of tea, meet up with people. It was good. I miss going in there.

“It’d be a shame for it to go. Newport is only a small town, but it would be better if that shop was still there.”

Councillor Jane Mudd, Leader of Newport City Council, said it was “incredibly sad for Newport.”

“Firstly, my thoughts are with the staff and families. While this is incredibly sad for Newport and the city centre, it must be a devastating blow for those who will lose their jobs,” she said.

“Support will be available through our employment and training schemes to help people find alternative employment as quickly as possible. This will include a dedicated point of contact and a range of assistance including help with writing/updating CVs, job searches, re-training opportunities and financial management.

“Debenhams and many other high street retailers across the UK have faced considerable challenges – Newport is certainly not unique in these circumstances.

“As a council we have done everything we can to help businesses through grants and rate relief and for Debenhams in particular, we had agreed to defer the non-domestic rates for the rest of this financial year while a rates review was pending.

“Just before Christmas we also launched a consultation on the latest key project that would bring new leisure, wellbeing and educational facilities back into the heart of the city centre.

“We believe Newport is still well placed to take advantage of investment opportunities, and the city centre masterplan supports the careful coordination of developments to ensure the best possible benefit to the city.”

Cardiff

The closing down sale in Debenhams Cardiff before the national lockdown was introduced
(Image: Richard Swingler)

The Debenhams Cardiff branch is located in St David’s Centre in the city centre and is a prominent fixture of the retail sector in the capital.

Debenhams was one of the anchor stores considered when developing the St Davids Centre in 2007.

But with Monday’s news, the city is facing being left with a huge hole at a time when many other, often smaller retailers, are also closing.

Just a few weeks ago, a representative from the company was unable to confirm the long-term future of the Cardiff branch.

Despite the national lockdown currently in place in Wales which prohibits non-essential retail stores from opening, a Debenhams representative then said their intention was to reopen as many stores as possible to complete the stock liquidation post-lockdown.

(Image: South Wales Echo)

Speaking on Monday in the city centre, Anne Littlewood from Roath said: “We will miss it, but shopping has been moving online for years now. The trouble is when the shops are gone people will miss them – you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

“It will leave a huge gap in St Davids, it’s a very big shop and one of the only ones that extends up onto the first floor. I don’t know what they’re going to do about the building and what is going to go in its place.

“Perhaps it will mean having to reconsider what the centre is all about – whether it be events or something like that – rather from retail.”

Peter Crowther said he fears Debenhams is one of many stores that will close due to the lockdown.

He said: “The point is, it’s not just Debenhams – all the shops in town are suffering with all the lockdowns. I don’t think Debenhams will be the only one. Even the pound shops are closing down.

“I don’t know if it would be closing down if it wasn’t for coronavirus – I think the government hasn’t given enough support to these businesses.

“It’s going to affect the public in a big way. I feel sorry for the people who work in Debenhams and it will be a big loss.

“I don’t feel bad for the company but for the people working there and for the general public who will lose it.”

Kathryn Heathfield and Janette Whittaker said the store was one they’d always visit when in the city.

They said: “I just think it’s a great pity that it’s closing down – it was a nice store, it was somewhere we always went for a coffee when we were in town. They had brilliant sales every year and it was just somewhere we would always visit.

“The problem is, with the coronavirus everything seems to be closing down. I’m originally from Cardiff but now live in Italy but usually when I come back Debenhams is one of those places we always go.

“It’s a great shame. This coronavirus is affecting everyone.”

The leader of Cardiff council also commented on the news, calling on the government to help protect high streets.

Council leader Cllr Huw Thomas said: “The news of the impending closure of Debenhams’s stores across the country is a further blow to our high streets, and will see hundreds of workers affected.

“With the high street bearing much of the brunt of the coronavirus restrictions, it is essential that government considers measures to protect jobs and services so that our city centres and high streets are sustainable in the post-Covid-19 economy.

“We will be putting in place measures with partners to support workers who have lost their jobs, but we also call upon government work with us to protect our city centres, town centres and high streets for future generations.”

WalesOnline – Swansea