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Published
Mar 17, 2022
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A year on, most Debenhams stores still empty, but wider vacancy rate falls

Published
Mar 17, 2022

Replacing shuttered Debenhams stores with other retailers was always going to be a tough call. And so it has proved. Almost a year on since 100 of its UK department stores closed for the final time, data shows almost 90% of them are still empty.


AFP


Although more than 9,100 retail and leisure premises were redeveloped in 2021, up nearly 49% on the year before, 5% of high street units have remained empty for more than three years alongside 6% of those in shopping centres, according to a report by the Local Data Company (LDC).

However, there is some good news. The number of empty stores in Britain has fallen for the first time in three years, boosting hopes that a post-pandemic physical retail revival really is under way.

In the second half of 2021, the national vacancy rate declined by 0.1% from the first half to reach 14.4% of all stores, according to the LDC. It’s the first decline in national vacancy rates since 2018.

The retail vacancy rate hit a record high of 15.8% last year but has since decreased to 15.7%

There also has been a 0.3% reduction in the vacancy rate in shopping centres, which were hit hardest by the pandemic as customers avoided enclosed and busy spaces to reduce their risk of Covid infection. However, the number of shopping centre vacancies is still 19.1%.

Retail parks, which have attracted shoppers because they can drive to them rather than use public transport and often include supermarkets, have remained relatively resilient throughout the pandemic and have continued to command higher rents.

Shopping centres and high streets were also hit particularly hard as a continuing  shift to shop online was exacerbated by the pandemic which prompted a raft of physical store closures, especially in the fashion and department store sectors.

In 2020, around 17,500 chain store outlets, an average of 48 stores and restaurants a day, had disappeared from UK high streets. And the LDC said it doesn’t expect store vacancy rates to return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon. 

And the closures of a raft of department stores have been difficult to repurpose, although some have been transformed into offices and residential spaces.

Lucy Stainton, commercial director at the Local Data Company, said that the latest figures “finally point to a reversal of the structural decline we had seen accelerate with the onset of the pandemic.

“Going into this, the physical retail market had already been plagued by a number of other headwinds, such as online and digital adoption, but the virus brought about long periods of restricted trading [that] proved insurmountable for many chains across retail and hospitality.

“With many chains re-looking at their strategy for growth, the independent sector proving buoyant and an unprecedented level of repurposing and redevelopment, we could be seeing the start of a new phase of physical retailing and we will be tracking this very closely.”

Stainton added that it was hoped that the “final shake-out” of retail insolvencies and company voluntary arrangements was over.

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