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The future for the department store

No one can doubt that recent years - even before the arrival of covid 19 - has seen the transformation of our high streets. No more so than the local department store.

Some chains, like John Lewis, have so far found a way to survive, but we have seen the liquidation of the Debenhams chain as well as the closure of some of the independent department stores - such as Boswells in Oxford.

High streets have always evolved and changed. That is the nature of them. The difference now is that we have perhaps seen 15 years of change packed into a period of 18 months. This has been a shock to the system, but one which many high streets are now starting to recover from.

I am certain we will see the reemergence and growth of the independent retailer. If that happens then we will begin to see the death of the homogenous high street. Our high streets might return to reflecting the nature and character of our towns and cities, and the people who live there. They will move from being clones of one another, dominated by multiples, to places people want to visit because of the variety of local traders and produce. That surely would be a positive outcome.

We are unlikely though to see a reemergence of the department store. The loss of Debenhams was massive. Figures from 2019 show that Debenhams - with 167 stores - was by far the UK's largest department store chain. The next nearest was House of Fraser with 48, and John Lewis with 36. Since 2019 the number of John Lewis stores has reduced to 24 and House of Fraser now has only 44.

So what does the future holds for the buildings where these department stores once made a home?

There were clearly fears in many places around the UK that the loss of these landmark anchor stores would create a semi permanent blight on our high streets. A blight caused by huge vacant monoliths sitting empty for months and even years, sucking the life out of that part of the high street.

It is not all negative. There are some positive stories around. It is far from inevitable that department stores will totally disappear. In many cases the answer will be to downsize the amount of retail space and find alternative uses for either the upper floors or a part of the building.

In some cases, demolition might be the answer because layouts and structures do not lend themselves to repurposing. Demolition is not the answer though for those department stores that are listed buildings, sit in a conservation area or form an important part of the built landscape.

There are examples of asset repurposing coming forward. In Oxford, the Council has been instrumental in finding a way to repurpose the former Boswells Department Store into a much needed hotel.

Another example of a repurposed department store in a prominent location is Whiteleys in Bayswater, which is set to include a mixed-use development of hotel, residential and retail in a once tired and failing building. In Wandsworth, Gravity is taking the Debenhams department store to create a new 80,000 sqft multi-format leisure concept.

The House of Fraser building in Edinburgh is being repurposed by Diageo as the Johnny Walker Whisky museum. And in Gloucester plans have just been announced for the former Debenhams store to be redeveloped into a university campus, with the first phase of the project intended to open in September 2023.

This latter example is part of a £110m regeneration of the Kings Square area being led by Gloucester City Council, including a new mixed-use development of office, hotel and residential space.

There are numerous other repurposing examples around, in various stages of conception and delivery.

Alongside this, M&S first announced in 2016 a radical restructuring plan, which will see the high street giant close 110 stores by 2022, ultimately cutting this down to 180. On a positive note, M&S plans to open 17 new or expanded full line stores over the next two years - ironically including a number in former Debenhams stores. Another example of asset repurposing.

The high street is far from dead. It is however going through major structural change in a compressed timeframe. It will take some yet to see in full what our new high streets look like. But there are positive signs, as the market does what it always does, and responds with innovation.

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