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. Retail expert Dr Gordon Fletcher of the University of Salford Business School looks back at the history of the store and assesses how it went wrong.
Dr Fletcher said: “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.
“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. By 1927, Debenhams was the UK’s largest department store retailer with 110 stores. A rapid growth that was achieved by buying up regional department stores across the UK.
“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. 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 millennium. 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. 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.”