It is still possible that Jenners, the venerable Edinburgh department store and one of the fixtures of Princes Street, will be rescued in some form or other. Observers have speculated that the announcement it is to shut is a bluff by its owner, Mike Ashley, aimed at extracting more generous terms from the landlord. But coming in the same week as news that Debenhams has been sold to the internet retailer Boohoo, a move expected to lead to the closure of its 124 stores, the prospect of Jenners disappearing has the feel of the end of an era.
Department stores may not mean much to some people. Even before the pandemic fast-forwarded existing trends, shoppers were moving online in droves. Once, Zara was known for its super-speedy supply chain. Last year, it was Boohoo that made a killing, after being among the first to ditch existing lines and move into the loungewear that it realised customers would want when stuck at home. Another internet retailer, Asos, is in talks to buy the remnants of Sir Philip Green’s fallen empire, Arcadia.
Cities such as Edinburgh, or London, will find other uses for flagship sites in world-famous locations. But the closure of Debenhams branches from Portsmouth to Dundee, with the loss of 12,000 jobs, is a dreadful moment. Last year, there were 15,700 shop closures, and 176,700 retail job losses. One of the reasons the pandemic has hit the UK so hard, economically, is our unusually heavy reliance on consumer spending. The 13% of GDP derived from recreation and culture is a larger share than any other G7 country. Even after the arrival of internet retail and streaming services, Britons like going shopping, eating in restaurants, staying in hotels and being entertained by arts and culture.
Not everyone is suffering. Food retailers are doing well, as are bookshops. John Lewis had a better Christmas than expected. But the mass closure of department stores is unwelcome not only for employees and customers, but also for everyone who values this slice of retail culture. When they arrived, as Émile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) described, they were blamed for crowding out small independents as they nurtured new consumption habits, particularly among women. With their cafes, lavatories, displays and fancy windows, they turned shopping into leisure. In Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (made into the film Carol, with Cate Blanchett), a romance between two women begins on either side of a toy counter.
But in recent years sales have stagnated as Debenhams struggled to cope with heavy debts built up under private-equity ownership, having been taken over in 2003. A trio of funds collected £1.2bn in dividends in less than three years. Meanwhile, Boohoo has emerged unscathed from last year’s scandal of illegally low wages. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is £70bn richer than he was at the start of the pandemic.
Clarity on business rates might have helped Debenhams find a buyer who wanted to run shops as well as websites. Ministers should regret that they didn’t provide it. The question that they, along with mayors, councils and local business leaders, must now address is how these emporiums are to be repurposed in ways that will help our towns and city centres to come alive again.