AMID the seemingly never-ending torrent of bad news that has engulfed the retail sector in recent months, this week’s bombshell events had a particular ring of sadness.

The announcement that Debenhams would soon be disappearing from our high streets for good – it will continue to exist as an online brand following the £55 million acquisition of its intellectual property assets by boohoo group – was first and foremost a bitter blow for the 12,000 people who will lose their jobs.

But the demise of a 243-year-old name, in terms of a bricks and mortar presence that spanned more than 100 stores, also felt like the end of an era for the high street, and there are plenty of doubts as to whether this is a good thing.

Boohoo, an online fashion specialist, should be commended for doing a deal that adds a trusted name (and a host of other brands Debenhams owned) to its offering, and yields the chance to take its brand into new product areas.

There is no doubt it has been adept at taking advantage of the online shopping trend that has been accelerating rapidly during the pandemic, which has made it impossible to shop in non-essential stores for much of the last 10 months.

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What is good for boohoo shareholders and its clientele, however, is not necessarily good for consumers, nor indeed the essence of the high street.

Having been brought up during what might now be regarded as a golden age of retail, plenty of people of my vintage will have fond memories of the many department stores that used to line the major shopping streets of Glasgow city centre.

I recall the excitement of visiting the sprawling Lewis’s department store on Argyle Street (in a building later occupied by Debenhams), which to a youngster seemed to stock every product under the sun. Other Scottish cities had their own big names, such as the fondly remembered Esslemont & Macintosh in Aberdeen.

Times change, of course, and in recent years the department store model appears to have become less and less viable, as we have seen from the closure of the likes of Lewis’s and Watt Brothers, and the protracted struggles of Debenhams. Even the mighty John Lewis has found the going tough of late.

A combination of numerous factors impinging over many years, from the rise of e-commerce to the domination of out-of-town shopping centres, had put the high street in retreat for some years even before the pandemic took hold. Running huge stores with large numbers of staff in expensive locations is just not as viable as it used to be, especially in light of the collapse of high street footfall brought about by restrictions to suppress the pandemic.

HeraldScotland: Jenners is closing in MayJenners is closing in May

It was against this backdrop that we also heard this week that Jenners, that most famous of Edinburgh department stores, would also be closing its flagship outlet on Princes Street, after Frasers Group failed to strike a tenancy agreement with landlord Anders Povlsen. Around 200 jobs are at risk from the closure, which will bring more than 180 years of retail history to an end on May 3.

The withdrawal of Debenhams and Frasers from significant buildings on major high streets naturally raises questions about what will replace them. It seems highly unlikely, in the current climate, that other retailers will have any need to occupy such sprawling premises, meaning other uses will have to be found.

In normal times it would not be hard to imagine major hoteliers taking over such prestigious addresses as those occupied by Jenners on Princes Street, or Debenhams on Glasgow’s Argyle Street.

But these are obviously not normal times, and it is hard to see any hotel operator sanctioning the level of investment required when the outlook remains so shrouded in uncertainty because of the continuing pandemic.

New tenants will also have to be found for the hundreds if not thousands of other retail units that have closed their doors in recent times as the huge structural change that has swept through the industry has been intensified by the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

But while it is hard to form a positive outlook for bricks and mortar shops, especially when the continuing lockdown means non-essential retailers are still unable to trade, there are grounds to hope that the sector could yet have a bright future.

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The younger generation may be entirely comfortable buying their clothes online, but that does not mean that large numbers of consumers do not enjoy the experience of shopping in stores, where they can touch and feel items and try them on before buying.

The same goes for furniture and electrical goods. When it comes to purchasing those items, there is no doubt the expertise and advice offered by experienced retail staff can really make the difference when consumers are making up their minds.

The current restrictions may mean people cannot visit stores the way they normally would. But, with the vaccine roll-out gathering pace, it is to be hoped that it will not be too long before the shops open again. Moreover, while hundreds of thousands of people have sadly lost their jobs amid the economic fallout from the crisis, there has been an increase in the savings rate among people whose incomes have been secure thus far.

According to some business commentators and experts, including the Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, this is generating a pent-up demand that is set to be unleashed as soon as restrictions allow. And it is not a big stretch to think such spending will go the way of retailers.


There is also social aspect of shopping that is overlooked when people talk of the shift to online retailing.

As we have seen from the huge popularity of out-of-town shopping centres, many people enjoy meeting friends, having a meal and going to the cinema at destinations such as Silverburn near Glasgow, which combine retail with a strong leisure offering.

It may be a few months yet before we can enjoy such occasions freely again, but there is no doubt that people will relish the prospect when the time comes.

It is also worth noting that, while recent months and years have seen the unfortunate collapse or downsizing of many big names in retail, many specialists had successfully carved their own niche in bricks and mortar spaces before the pandemic hit.

As one independent, family-owned retailer in Edinburgh said to me this week, outlets which offer a genuine point of difference, where expert staff can offer advice and where the consumer can watch products come to life, should always be able to command a compelling presence on the high street.