Almost all of the Debenhams stores are still empty a year after the collapse

About 90% of former Debenhams stores remain empty, almost a year after the department store closed its doors for the last time, as a sign of the challenge of reinventing highways across the country.

As many as 8,000 outlets were empty last year, according to a report by High Street Analyst Local Data Company (LDC).

However, that was less than the 11,319 net closures in 2020, as fewer businesses fell into administration, when more than 43,000 new businesses opened, an increase of more than 10%.

Fast-food outlets, barbers, grocery stores, cafes and beauty salons were the fastest growing sectors, as independent businesses took advantage of cheap rents to open.

There was also a significant bounce-back in the leisure industry, with a net 52 outlets closing more than 2,640 a year ago as restrictions on dining out were relaxed and takeaway businesses continued to grow. Clothing stores, banks, charities and pubs were the worst hit.

Lucy Stanton, commercial director at LDC, said department stores were a particular problem, with only 12% of recently vacated sites now being restored, while only one-fifth of former BHS outlets were empty five years after the department store collapsed. The cost of fitting and maintaining such large sites.

Landlords and councilors need to think outside of the retailer to fill the space because there was a “knock-on effect” on the attractiveness of a city or shopping center when the original sites were empty, he said.

Ongoing projects include converting Gloucester’s former Debenhams to a student campus, while Manchester’s Kendall’s Building, House of Fraser’s home, will be converted into an office.

There are signs of recovery as homeowners quickly rebuild vacant buildings to adapt to a new shopping and leisure landscape. After six years of growth, the vacancy ratio has dropped from 14.5% to 14.4%.

In 2021, more than 9,100 retail and leisure campuses were rebuilt, about 49% more than the previous year. However, 5% of High Street outlets have been vacant for more than three years and 6% of shopping centers, according to the report.

The LDC has forecast a gradual decline in vacancy rates over the next few years, but does not expect a rapid return to pre-epidemic levels. It says “drastic measures” are needed to adapt shopping destinations, including further redevelopment – and that next year the number of shops and high street services, such as banks and leisure businesses, could fall by 9,000.

The report identifies inflation due to the end of commercial rent suspensions, business relief and grants for occupiers and local authorities this spring, as well as higher costs for retailers, rising interest rates and a national insurance hike. It says these factors could “probably make 2022 another challenging year for retailers.”

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