Debenhams bows out after 200 years leaving town centres counting the cost

There were queues of bargain hunters at the tills at Debenhams in Sheffield but it had the feel of a market hall rather than a department store chain that can trace its roots back more than 240 years.

Large areas were roped off with black and yellow tape, the beauty department had been stripped bare with some brand names now obscured by black spray paint, while the lingerie display was little more than four cardboard boxes of bras.

“Everything must go” read a sign above the tills at the city centre store but there was little stock left by Thursday afternoon, with only one and a half of the store’s four floors still trading. This store, along with 28 others from Brighton to Belfast and including big shopping centre outlets such as Lakeside, Trafford and the Birmingham Bullring, will close their doors for the final time on Saturday.

The brand name will then disappear from UK high streets for the first time since 1813, when William Debenham became a partner at a draper’s store in London’s Wigmore Street, and the shop was renamed Clark & Debenham.

Atkinsons in Sheffield
After Debenhams closes, Atkinsons will be the only department store trading in the city. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“People are loving it, some things are 80% off,” one worker said trying to keep things orderly as shoppers hunted through clothing rails lined up in the centre of the shop floor. But she added: “It’s just sad. Some [staff] have been here 20 or 30 years, it’s all they have ever known.”

Shoppers also expressed sadness, with one saying Debenhams’ closure could leave a “large empty hole” in the heart of the city.

Some pondered if the city centre would still be worth visiting after Saturday as there will be just one department store left trading , local independent Atkinsons, after John Lewis also announced the permanent closure of its Sheffield store in March and the cut price operator TJ Hughes shut its nearby outlet last year.

“I feel devastated. I have cried about it. It makes me feel so sad to see our town centre turning into a ghost place,” one shopper said.

Caroline Dube
Caroline Dube: ‘When I came here Debenhams was the store.’ Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Caroline Dube, 56, who has popped in to Debenhams to get some last-minute bargains, said: “It has been my favourite shop since I came to England in 2001. When I came here Debenhams was the store. Almost every weekend I would go there, even if I wasn’t buying anything. It is so sad that big shops are closing down. It is sad that people are losing their jobs.

“I don’t know who could go into this huge building and fill it up the way Debenhams has.”

Jessica Simmonite, at the family-run Simmonite deli and butchers on nearby Division Street, said the number of closures nearby, which apart from John Lewis also include the Pandora jewellery store, Office and Footlocker footwear, Thornton’s chocolate shop, Patisserie Valerie and Thomas Cook, was “scary”.


Debenhams – a 200-year history


Debenhams – a 200-year history

Debenhams closes on Saturday after 200 years. More than 20,000 people have lost their jobs since the group first called in administrators two years ago when it had 166 stores. The brand has now been bought by the Boohoo group, but will only trade online.

Debenhams traces its roots back to 1778 when William Clark opened a drapers shop on Wigmore Street in London. It was renamed Clark & Debenham in 1813 when Suffolk businessman William Debenham invested.

In 1928 Debenhams became a listed company. It expended rapidly, to 100 stores by 1950.

* Debenhams was bought in 1985 by the Burton Group which also included brands such as Topshop and Dorothy Perkins.

* Debenhams split from Burton and relisted on the London Stock Exchange in 1998. It had developed its Designers at Debenhams own labels, with fashion ranges from names such as John Rocha and Jasper Conran.

* Debenhams was sold in 2003 to private equity groups CVC Capital Partners, Texas Pacific Group and Merrill Lynch. Together the trio invested £600m in the purchase.

*When the business was refloated on the stock market three years later the investors made £1.2bn. However, the group was now saddled with £1bn of debt and had sold the freehold on many stores, which were now locked into expensive and lengthy lease deals.

* Debenhams was burdened with debt, slow to invest in online shopping and in updating its stores.

* In 2019, after an acrimonious four-year battle for control for Debenhams with its lenders, the group collapsed into administration.

* Only a year later, despite a rescue restructure and the closure of 20 stores, Debenhams collapsed again.

* The group headed into liquidation in December 2020. Boohoo bought the brand in January.

Photograph: Trinity Mirror/

“A lot is shutting … it’s devastating. It will impact the town.

“It seems busy but people are not spending money. They are going to Primark and to the pub and that’s it. A lot of people are on furlough or have lost their jobs so they haven’t got the money to spend. It is worrying for every business.

“It’s a domino effect. When one goes, everyone goes.”

The city’s story reflects a similar one around the country as high streets are forced to adapt to rapid change in habits towards online shopping and spending on other experiences and hobbies rather than buying clothes and homewares.

John Lewis in Sheffield
John Lewis has also announced the permanenet closure of its Sheffield store. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

The closures of Debenhams and John Lewis, two large stores, is certainly a blow to Sheffield which has invested millions in redeveloping its town centre to attract people back after being hit by the opening of out-of-town shopping centre Meadowhall in 1990. On Saturday, the Debenhams in Meadowhall will close too.

Last year the council paid £3m to John Lewis as part of attempts to keep its store open. Sheffield shoppers said they will miss it as a safe and affordable place to go for a meal before visiting the theatre, or to meet older relatives for a cup of tea. And its car park was cheap, they say, helping with the cost of a visit into town.

The John Lewis store looked ready to reopen at any moment, with cosmetics still on display on Thursday, visible through doors plastered in messages begging John Lewis to reconsider. But the outlet is likely to be emptied once consultation with staff finishes next month.

Like many towns and cities, Sheffield is now searching for new attractions and ideas that will provide the same draw as the department stores once did.

Rob, 40, standing outside Debenhams said he was not a shopper because “what they sell in there is not anything that I would buy”.

Rob outside Debenhams in Sheffield.
Rob: ‘Modern technology is driving this. Change is not always a bad thing.’ Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Debenhams, he said, “was not keeping up with modern times. When people were riding around on horses and carts they had an attachment to them, but then cars came along. Modern technology is driving this. Change is not always a bad thing. It is just different.”

He suggested Debenhams’ demise would could make way for more places to eat out and family entertainment – things that people want more of in Sheffield.

Nalin Seneviratne, director for city centre development at Sheffield city council, said no planning applications had yet been received for the site which was bought, as part of The Moor estate in February.

However, the new owners have indicated they could knock down the Debenhams building as part of a plan to build more than 1,000 rental homes and hundreds of student flats.

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Seneviratne said he hoped there would be some “exciting plans” for the site. “This is a similar story up and down the UK. We like to take these closures as opportunities for fresh thinking, looking at how people use towns and cities and what cities can and should offer people in the future.

He pointed to the council’s latest “heart of the city” redevelopment near John Lewis as an “exciting opportunity” that will bring in a new hotel and restaurant as well as “a significant amount of independent businesses.”

“We’re a city that people visit for more than just its retail offer. I’m excited for Sheffield’s future.”


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