United Kingdom

RUTH SUNDERLAND analyses the fallout as Debenhams and Arcadia go to the wall 

This is, without a doubt, the bleakest moment on Britain’s high streets since the Second World War.

Only the demise of Woolworths, in the financial crisis of 2008, comes anywhere near to the tragedy this week as two of the biggest names in British retail have been brought to their knees.

Once the grande dame of department stores, 242-year-old Debenhams has gone into liquidation.

It is collateral damage in the wreckage of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia empire, which fell into administration on Monday.

The collapse is the starkest illustration yet of the plight of the retail industry, forced by government diktat to pull down its shutters for some 17 weeks during the pandemic.

Debenhams department store (pictured) is set to be liquidated by the new year after JD Sports scrapped its proposed rescue deal following the collapse of Sir Philip Green's Arcadia group

But for Debenhams and Arcadia, Covid-19 is merely the final straw for once-great businesses that have had their lifeblood sucked away by greed and their finances corroded by debt.

One cruel irony is that their demise comes in the run-up to Christmas, the busiest trading time of the year.

Another is that they have gone under just as shops are allowed to open up again today.

Although both plan to resume trading, their fate casts a pall over festive shopping.

The usual excitement and anticipation, the sparkling lights, the window displays and the jostling crowds have been usurped by fear of the virus and for the future of staff soon to lose their livelihoods.

The retail industry employed around three million people prior to the pandemic, many of them women.

More than 235,000 jobs will have gone by the end of this year, according to the Centre for Retail Research, and thousands more will be axed in 2021.

A string of smaller well-known names have already fallen by the wayside, including Edinburgh Woollen Mill, discount fashion retailer M&Co and the UK arm of Victoria’s Secret.

Other big names such as Marks & Spencer, Boots and WH Smith are closing some stores as profits plunge.

Many are buckling under the pre-virus strains of high business rates and cut-throat competition from online operators.

If the trend for working from home persists, shops that rely on the commuter and office trade will see the huge reduction in turnover of recent months become permanent. Many will no longer be viable.

Coronavirus has taken a Darwinian toll on our high streets.

Operators with inherent weaknesses like Arcadia and Debenhams that had been overtaken by younger rivals, better attuned to the digital age and online shopping and faster to respond to customers’ demands, were always the most vulnerable to extinction.

But sad as their fate may be, the death knell for the high street is premature. Instead, this is part of a painful evolution.

Rents have been unconscionably high for decades. That has driven out independent shops and resulted in identical town centres lacking in character and innovation.

Landlords will have to lower costs, while Covid should also act as a catalyst for reform of the iniquitous business rates system.

This could lead to a resurgence of boutiques and smaller stores that will bring variety and pleasure back to shopping.

Some retail space may be converted to leisure or residential use. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has also announced a £4billion ‘levelling up’ fund for local projects including shopping centres.

Sir Philip Green with wife Tina pictured at the Music Industry Trust Awards in London, 2015

And there is definitely hope for traditional retailers, if they run their businesses sensibly and ethically.

Even in the pandemic, some have put in a brilliant performance. Take B&M, a discount bazaar in the mould of Woolies.

Its profits nearly doubled in the first six months of this year because it provides the goods its cash-strapped customers want, at prices they can afford.

Or Next, whose enlightened management under Lord Wolfson could not be in greater contrast to Sir Philip Green’s strategy.

While Debenhams and Arcadia limped into lockdown in a weakened state due to years of poor management and under-investment, Next has raised its profit forecast for this year by £65million to £365millon.

Debenhams never recovered from a three-year catastrophic period in the hands of private equity predators.

Three private equity firms bought the chain in 2003, made many millions in profit for themselves, but left it saddled with huge debts.

There are parallels with Arcadia. Sir Philip and Tina Green – his wife is the official owner – bought the business for £850million in 2002.

In 2005, Lady Green extracted a £1.2billion dividend, largely financed by debt. That was money that many believe should have been used to invest in the brands and the stores.

Her pledges of support for Arcadia and its pension fund amount to a mere fraction of the vast tax-free sums she has accumulated.

It is, then, a sorry tale of reckless greed and vulture capitalism that did for two stalwarts of our high streets – and which today leaves 25,000 employees facing uncertain futures.  

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