A Debenhams near you

Of course, you may be lucky enough to still have a Debenhams near you. However, 19 Debenhams stores in the UK closed their doors for good this January (that is: January 2020).

Debenhams is the UK’s largest chain of department stores. Its origins can be traced back to 1778 when William Clark started a draper’s store at 44 Wigmore Street in London. In 1813, William Debenham invested in the enterprise which then became Clark & Debenham.

Clark and Debenham specialised in expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols. The store prospered, its history page explains, because of “the Victorian fashion for family mourning“. Widows and other female relatives kept to a strict code of clothing after the passing of a loved one, and black hats, veils, crepe gowns and jet jewellery were practically compulsory. As, during the nineteenth century, a widow needed to mourn the death of her husband for at least two years, this meant mourning goods were a profitable source of income.

Times change.


Empty shelves in Eastbourne

In April 2019, the venerable department store entered into a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA). The CVA allowed Debenhams to renegotiate rents at its stores that were to remain open. However, from Kirkcaldy to Eastbourne, the Arrangement also meant the closure of 22 stores (three went last year). Those closures affected 1,200 workers.

What’s to blame for this misfortune? Partly a mistimed expansion. Industry experts noted that the retailer expanded the number of its stores during the 2000s. Debts and expensive leases were not a good entry on the balance sheet when customers were discovering the joys of online sales. Real-world outlets have to pay rent and rates for their premises, expenses that cyberspace does not require in quite the same proportions.

Partly, also, the same forces that were at work on British Home Stores, Toys R Us and Maplin. When there’s an increase in online shopping, the High Street suffers from fewer customers. When the High Street suffers, the remaining customers pick their way past the charity shops and tanning salons, hop over the blankets for the homeless, reach the overpriced parking garage, and vow to do it all from the comfort of their sofa the next time round. Thus, the cycle continues.

In the UK, during 2019, 16,073 stores closed, the Centre for Retail Research’s “retail in crisis” end-of-year report mourned.

Perhaps if Victorian mourning customs had continued, Debenhams would still be making a small fortune from widows’ weeds. As it is, perhaps the rest of us will just have to dress in black for two years to mourn The Death of The High Street.

You know it’s on its way.


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