Debenhams: 'Last of the giants' leaves Northampton

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Rainy last day of shopping at Debenhams, Northampton
Image caption,
Shoppers braved the rain on the last day of trading at Debenhams in Northampton

Fifty-two Debenhams stores close their doors for the final time on Saturday, with the rest set to go over the next seven days. In Northampton, it means the loss of the town's last-remaining department store. What does the closure mean for the town and what will happen next?

It is a suitably drab Saturday to say goodbye to the latest shopping behemoth to leave Northampton town centre.

With the rain lashing down and a brave stream of customers picking any last bargain from increasingly empty shelves, its Debenhams prepares to close its doors for the final time.

In recent years, various holes have appeared on the town's High Street, with the collapse of chains like BHS and Woolworths. House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer have also departed.

Kardi Sommerfield, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Northampton, says Debenhams "feels to me like the last one of these giants... the world moved on and left them behind".

Many have questioned whether the closure is another step towards an inevitable "death of the High Street", but, with a town development plan in place, is the future brighter without retail giants?

'Debenhams has been limping along'

Image caption,
Kardi Sommerfield from the University said Debenhams was the "last of the giants" to leave Northampton

All 101 of Debenhams stores will close by 15 May.

For years, the chain has struggled with falling profits and rising debts, as more shopping moved online.

Ms Sommerfield says: "It won't be a surprise to anybody [it is closing], but it's sad. Every shop is an eco-system, supporting jobs and businesses.

"The actual store itself was limping along, [with] clearly no investment in the infrastructure."

She says shops on the High Street had to improve their offer as "it has to be great experience, or else how to you differentiate from shopping online?".

"If they were getting it right, they wouldn't be in trouble," she says.

'Closure an opportunity for new businesses'

Image source, Northampton BID
Image caption,
Northampton Business Improvement District operations manager Mark Mullen is confident about the town centre despite Debenham closing

Mark Mullen, from the Northampton Town Centre Business Improvement District organisation, says the closure of Debenhams is "going to be a loss" for the town.

He says the store has "a level of loyalty, so there is a customer base that has a reason now not to visit the town".

But he says there is an opportunity for "new business or current businesses to expend and develop" to fill the gap left by Debenhams.

The town has suffered a series of big-name store losses, but Mr Mullen says it is not "any different from a lot of other town centres" with many feeling the effects of Covid-19 restrictions.

A history of Debenhams in Northampton

Image caption,
Clive Swift, George Webb and Patricia Routledge in BBC TV's Keeping Up Appearances, which was filmed at Debenhams in Northampton in 1991
  • Adnitt Brothers department store opened on the Drapery in 1871
  • "Adnitts", as it was known locally, was purchased by Debenhams in 1952
  • Between 1958 and 1962, the store was rebuilt on the existing site
  • It was renamed Debenhams in 1973
  • In 1991, the store featured in an episode of BBC Sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, which saw many scenes filmed in the town

Source: World Heritage Encyclopaedia/West Northamptonshire Council/BBC

What will happen to the Debenhams site?

Image source, 56three/West Northamptonshire Council
Image caption,
Plans submitted for the Debenhams site would see it replaced with student accommodation

Plans have been submitted to West Northamptonshire Council to demolish the building and build student accommodation.

The council's town improvement plan, devised by the group Northampton Forward and the now defunct Northampton Borough Council, includes plans for The Drapery which would "significantly enhance the public spaces", improve pedestrian access and address concerns around crime and safety.

Ms Sommerfield says the closure of Debenhams "leaves the Drapery out on a limb".

"It is a bit of problem street. Some of the building are beautiful, but it needs some help," he says.

Image caption,
Debenhams follows the likes of BHS, Woolworths, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer in leaving Northampton town centre

But Mr Mullen says it is not "the death of the High Street".

"It becomes the evolution of the High Street. The purpose of High Street changes and it becomes a different destination for different reasons," he says.

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