May 5, 2021
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Last Debenhams stores to shut on May 15

May 5, 2021

Debenhams will exit the UK high street for good on May 15 as the administrators close its remaining stores. The closures will end more than 200 years in which the company has been a major name in UK retail.

Photo: Sandra Halliday

With the Debenhams name now owned by Boohoo Group and having gone online-only, it's the end of an era for a company that was once the largest department stores operator in Britain. A little over a year ago, it could still claim that status, but it will close 52 branches on May 8 with the final 49 shutting on May 12 or 15.

The closure of the company as a physical business will mean the loss of around 12,000 jobs.

The company began in 1778 when William Clark opened a store in the West End of London, with William Debenham investing in the business 35 years later. 

Not so many years ago, the retailer had plans to increase its store numbers to around 240 and it opened its newest store as recently as four years ago.

However, times have been tough for quite a while. A private equity takeover, followed by a period as a listed company never really solved its fundamental problems. Having sold and leased back many of its properties, its cost were rising just at the time when sales at so many physical shops were faltering because of the online revolution. This led to two administration filings with its most recent being just over a year ago.

With all the individual department store businesses that have been closed in recent years, as well as the failure of chains such as Beale’s and branches of John Lewis and House of Fraser being shuttered, the UK department store scene is very different from what it was just five years ago.

Today, it's no longer the case that every major high street, shopping centre or town has a traditional department store. But some are still able to prosper with businesses such as Selfridges and Harrods proving to be goldmines in normal circumstances, although the pandemic has hurt them in the past year.

In terms of department stores that are less focused on the ultra-luxury market, John Lewis and House of Fraser remain the two key players in the UK, although both are facing major challenges.

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