What impact has Debenhams had on UK retail?


Following its collapse and acquisition by Boohoo, Gordon Fletcher, Director of Business at the University of Salford analyses the impact UK high street brand Debenhams has had on the retail sector.

As the last Debenham’s store closes its doors this week a major chapter in retail history also concludes. Although the name lives on as one of Boohoo’s expanding range of brand names there will be no more physical presence. And it is the physical presence on so many UK high streets that has been the hallmark of the Debenhams retail experience. These building also represent the increasingly fading ghosts of the many local department stores acquired by Debenhams during its 243 years history.

Debenhams has a history marked by acquisitions, public listings and, more recently, poor speculative management decisions that in the end turned out to not be in the best interests of the company. In fact, the company only became associated with the Debenhams name when William Debenham bought into William Clark’s drapers store on Wigmore St in 1813. An advertisement from 1813 set the tone of the establishment, “Clark and Debenham respectfully inform the nobility and gentry they have on sale… an elegant assortment of silk mercery, hosiery, haberdasheries, muslins, &c.” and “Ladies waited on at their own houses”. Despite directly addressing an upmarket audience and surprisingly, the advertisement also claims to offer “very low terms” and “remarkedly cheap” goods.

Into the early 20th century the company merged twice with other London department stores on a growth trajectory that hallmarks its activities for nearly 100 years. In 1905 and reflecting the fashion of the times, a long ostrich feather boa was on sale for 63 shillings or the equivalent of £380 today. A theatre gown in 1912 was on sale for 10 1/2 guineas which would now cost nearly £1,300. The offer of “remarkedly cheap” goods is now a distant memory and this sentiment of upmarket retail was sealed with the purchase of Harvey Nichols in 1920.

By 1927, Debenhams was the UK’s largest department store retailer with 110 stores. A rapid growth that was acheived by buying up regional department stores across the UK. In 1928 the Manchester-based Paulden’s became part of the Debenhams empire. Originally based in the All Saint’s area where MMU is now and then following a major fire in the 1960s it was trading from Ryland’s Warehouse on Market St – where it traded until this week. Paulden’s was itself a major innovator having introduced electric lighting, lifts, escalators, danish pastries, plate glass windows and a live band to the UK retail experience. Paulden’s was also one of the first stores to offer a home delivery service – perhaps a foreshadowing of Debenhams longer-term fate. Affleck and Brown’s, based in what is now Affleck’s Palace, also became part of the Debenhams growing portfolio at the same time. For fans of music in Manchester, Debenhams also, sort of, contributed one of the popular venues. The Apollo in Ardwick originally being used a warehouse for Affleck’s, with some of its staff even living on-site, until it was sold as the company focused attention on its Market St property.

In 1947, during the austerity brought by post-war time conditions, magazines advertised Debenham’s clothing including a navy crepe cardigan suit for £16 – over £600 in today’s prices. But surprisingly it would be 1966 before the company adopted centralised buying across the entire chain. A very late introduction of an internal efficiency for such a large retail business.

But the changing fortunes of the chain began to publicly show with the turn of the millenium. In 2005, the company sold 23 of its properties to British Land for nearly £1/2 billion. The argument at the time was that the focus of the business was on retailing not property management. But this perspective now seems too narrow and even naive. Part of the Debenhams experience was always about being it its voluminous and sometimes elaborate properties. By putting this aspect of the experience in another company’s hands and then having to pay rent on top of that was a signal of impending doom. The third stock market listing a year later was, with the benefit of hindsight, just a further warning sign.

Today, Denbenhams’ website is offering a 100% polyester feather detail plunge dress for £171 in its wedding section. When William Clark opened his drapers In 1778, this would have been the equivalent of £1. This modern version of “remarkedly cheap” summarises the Debenhams story. From its early innovations and expansion with the acquisition of iconic brands across the UK it has faced an increasingly fast paced and competitive fashion retailing sector. But in attempting to compete with these newer, agile retailers, trying to service its corporate debt and having to pay the rent on properties it once owned the company simply lost sight of its distinctiveness and the experience it once offered. The end result are soon to be empty buildings across the UK and a brand name that is a thin shell for the proud history that it represents.