I got married in 2016 and if my wedding would’ve had a sponsor, it probably would have been Debenhams. Unlike the millennial woman the algorithm-generated social media ads think I am, I didn’t particularly enjoy planning my nuptials. Mention the w-word to any caterer, jeweller, make-up artist, hairdresser or photographer and pound signs appear in their eyes. I hated it. And don’t even get me started on the dress.
Debenhams became my salve for a battered and bruised budget. I’d bought shoes, stockings, underwear and makeup there by the time I snapped up five bargain bridesmaid dresses in the mid-season sale. I didn’t even mind heading there on the eve of the big day – when others might’ve been basking in steam rooms or imbibing large quantities of prosecco – to solve the maid of honour’s bra problem. Any other department store would probably have sent me over the edge, but Debenhams was like a calming aunt, always getting to ‘yes’ when I most needed it.
So it’s with great disappointment that I learned this week that it had – not exactly unexpectedly – gone into administration. On Tuesday morning lenders took control of the department store chain, which was once the UK’s biggest, wiping out shareholders, including a particularly peeved Mike Ashley. Ashley had spent months amassing a 30% stake in the ailing business, but a last ditch attempt by him to salvage it failed. Now 4,000 jobs are at risk and, although Debenhams’ 166 UK outlets will keep trading for the time being, their future – for lack of a more timely analogy – is about as certain as anything relating to Brexit. It all depends if the lenders can find a buyer.
The woe of Debenhams is another sign that the remnants of the traditional British high street are in a grim place if they’re not able – or willing – to get with the programme, and pronto. Or as Richard Lim, the chief executive of analytics group Retail Economics, more eloquently puts it: “We should not understate the significance of this collapse. Debenhams has fallen victim to crippling levels of debt” which have “paralysed its ability to pivot towards a more digital and experience-led retail model”.
Debenhams had been walloped by a slump in sales and a mass migration of consumers from stores to online. The most recently available data from the British Retail Consortium shows that UK shopper footfall slumped for a 15th consecutive month in February, making it the weakest month in half a decade. Analysts said that Brexit uncertainty was fuelling a needs-not-wants approach to spending money.
It’s a bitter truth of 2019 that most retailers, especially in the price bracket of Debenhams and BHS, face a choice of digital or die. The likes of Amazon have shaken up the industry unrecognisably and allowed us to become accustomed to a world of instant, tap-of-the-mouse gratification, effortlessly achievable without having to do so much as get changed out of our pyjamas.
The irony, of course, is that Amazon itself now looks like a decent candidate for snapping up at least some of those empty retail lots. After years of reigning the virtual world, it gobbled up Wholefoods in 2017, taking a $13.7bn punt on bricks-and-mortar shopping. More recently, Jeff Bezos’ empire has opened a chain of own-brand convenience stores to capture the whole spectrum of consumer, from online evangelist to old school fan of the “IRL”. But Amazon has proven that it has critical mass, bags of business acumen and a penny or two to spare. Debenhams, as it turns out, has none of that.
With its rich history dating back to 1778, Debenhams’ demise is pitiful. I’m sure I wasn’t the only bride who gratefully treated it as a one-stop-shop. But as we continue to muddle through a period of deep economic uncertainty, fierce online competition, steep business rates and spoiled-for-choice consumers, don’t expect this victim to be the last.
And don’t bemoan the development too much either. You may foster sweet memories of childhood birthdays spent in Debenhams’ toy departments, teenage pocket money splashed on CDs and cheap fashion, or student budgets painfully scraped together to afford a new set of towels and a cut-price kettle. But we’re all playing our parts in the changing tides of retail. Just check your browser history.