Debenhams shops to close permanently after Boohoo deal

Debenhams shoppers
Debenhams shoppers

Fashion retailer Boohoo has bought the Debenhams brand and website for £55m.

However, it will not take on any of the firm’s remaining 118 High Street stores or its workforce.

Boohoo said it was a “transformational deal” and a “huge step”. But the deal means that up to 12,000 jobs at the department store chain are set to go.

The 242-year-old Debenhams chain is already in the process of closing down, after administrators failed to secure a rescue deal for the business.

In a separate development, Asos says it is in “exclusive” talks to buy the Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and HIIT brands out of administration.

But the online retailer said it only wanted the brands, not their shops, suggesting any deal would cost jobs.

The current owner of the brands, Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group, fell into administration last November putting 13,000 jobs at risk.

‘Best outcome’

A closing-down sale at 124 Debenhams stores began in December, as the administrators continued to seek offers for all or parts of the business.

The company announced recently that six shops would not reopen after lockdown, including its flagship department store on London’s Oxford Street.

The administrators of Debenhams UK, FRP Advisory, said they had undertaken a “thorough and robust process” to achieve “the best outcome for Debenhams’ stakeholders”.

“This transaction will allow a new Debenhams-branded business to emerge under strong new ownership, including an online operation and the opportunity to secure an international franchise network that will operate under licence using the Debenhams name,” they added.

Boohoo has already bought a number of High Street brands out of administration. It snapped up Oasis, Coast and Karen Millen, but not the associated stores.

Its executive chairman, Mahmud Kamani, said: “This is a transformational deal for the group, which allows us to capture the fantastic opportunity as ecommerce continues to grow. Our ambition is to create the UK’s largest marketplace.

“Our acquisition of the Debenhams brand is strategically significant as it represents a huge step which accelerates our ambition to be a leader, not just in fashion ecommerce, but in new categories including beauty, sport and homeware.”

Boohoo said Debenhams was expected to relaunch on Boohoo’s web platform later this year.

In the meantime, Debenhams will continue to operate its website for an agreed period.

Models wearing floral dresses
Boohoo’s fast-fashion model has come under scrutiny

Boohoo has recently come under fire over workers’ pay and conditions and its ultra-low pricing.

As well as facing questions about the environmental impact of its fast-fashion business model, there have been accusations of widespread abuse of employment law at some of Boohoo’s suppliers in Leicester.

Investigations last year suggested workers were being paid below the minimum wage.

After an independent review of the claims found a series of failings, Mr Kamani said last month that the firm was working to fix the problems, adding: “We will make a better Boohoo.”

Analysis box by Dominic O'Connell, business correspondent
Analysis box by Dominic O’Connell, business correspondent

While online retailers have been whittling away at their High Street rivals for years, few could have predicted how quickly bricks-and-mortar stalwarts have collapsed. The pandemic has fatally undermined their already parlous finances. Businesses that appeared to have a chance of survival just a year ago have been wiped out and their brands bought by online players.

The scale of the change is profound: when Debenhams listed on the stock exchange in 2011, investors valued it at £1.6bn. Boohoo, which was founded only in 2006, already has a stock market value of £4.4bn. Asos, a bit player two decades ago when Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia group was riding high and toying with a bid for Marks & Spencer, is now by valued by the stock market at £5bn.

Neither Boohoo or Asos see any value in the Debenhams or Topshop High Street estates. Instead, they will concentrate on development of the brands and the associated customer data. This is bad news for the 19,000-odd people who work in the branches of Debenhams and Topshop, and will leave councils around the country wondering how they will fill town centres that were based on retail.

But just as canny entrepreneurs and private equity companies are gearing up to buy struggling pub chains, in the hope of a recovery once lockdown restrictions are eased, so will some investors be wondering what next for the High Street. The British love affair with shopping will not end overnight and a well-placed punt now could have big rewards.

Debenhams has struggled for years with falling profits and rising debts, as more shopping has moved online. It called in administrators twice in two years, most recently in April.

However, its position became untenable during the coronavirus pandemic as non-essential retailers were forced to close for prolonged periods.

The firm had already trimmed its store portfolio and cut about 6,500 jobs since May, as it struggled to stay afloat.

Businessman Mike Ashley, who founded Sports Direct and also owns House of Fraser, had already made an offer for Debenhams after it was initially put up for sale in April.

However, the takeover offer, thought to be in the region of £125m, was rejected as being too low.

Meanwhile, one of House of Fraser’s flagship outlets, the Jenners department store in Edinburgh, is to leave its Princes Street home after 183 years. It will close on 3 May with the loss of 200 jobs.

The building’s owner, Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, announced in November 2019 that he intended to convert the site, replacing Jenners with a hotel, cafes, a rooftop restaurant and luxury shops.

However, a spokesperson for Frasers Group said it had been “unable to reach an agreement” with Mr Povlsen and that the closure of Jenners would leave “a vacant site for the foreseeable future with no immediate plans”.

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