Debenhams closures: Four ways to use the empty stores

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Huw Evans picture agency

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Havens department store closed in 2017 and has become an office/ community hub

Last week Debenhams named 22 of the 50 stores it plans to close as part of a plan by new owners to revive the department store chain.

But what will happen to all that empty retail space?

According to the Local Data Company, some shops could be taken over by other retailers or converted into housing, but many more could lie vacant for some time.

In total, it says 235 former department stores currently stand empty across the UK following a spate of recent closures – up from 82 in 2014.

However, some former shops are finding inventive ways to reuse redundant space, offering potential inspiration for any Debenhams stores that struggle to find buyers.

We look at four ways former retail buildings are being given a new lease of life.

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The Empty Shops Network

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Empty shops have been used to hold markets and other events

1. Become an office/ community hub

Havens department store in Southend-on-Sea opened in 1901, but as far back as the late 1990s its owners could see footfall was declining.

“We are 10,000 square feet, built as a department store but that’s an anachronism today,” says Nigel Havens. “We had to make better use of the freehold before it was too late.”

In 2017 he took action, closing the department store and moving the homeware-and-gifts business online, and running the operation from the top floor of the Grade II listed shop.

He then rented out the first and second floors to charity Age UK, which is using it for a community hub.

Local elderly people can now drop in for tea and cake, play table tennis and attend drawing and keep-fit classes.

And the charity plans to bring in a range of businesses and services aimed at older people, including a hairdressers, a café open to the public, bereavement counselling and a clinic.

“Retailers won’t be the saviour of high streets, it will be eating, drinking, leisure, religion, education, police stations and council offices,” says Mr Havens.

He says the move has kept his business “on a good footing”. And while the Havens’ building no longer serves High Street shoppers, people can still click and collect.

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Enterprise Arcade

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The Enterprise Arcade is now home to 16 start-up businesses

2. Create a launchpad for new businesses

Stockton upon Tees is in the midst of a big plan to revitalise its town centre, and one scheme has involved converting a former department store into a “start-up incubator”.

Backed by the local council, the “Fountain Shopping Mall – Home of the Enterprise Arcade” rents spaces to independent businesses at low rates and doesn’t charge them business rates. Its 16 tenants range from independent jewellers to cafes.

Bill Grimsey, a former chief executive of Wickes and Iceland, thinks the scheme is a great way to let people experiment with business ideas without having to “take out big loans”.

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Gilbert Johnston

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Karen Watson runs Quakes for Shakes, a freak shake cafe at the Enterprise Arcade

And a number of businesses formerly at the Arcade have gone on to take up bigger premises in the town centre.

Mr Grimsey, who has led two government reviews on regenerating the High Street, says the site is part of a much bigger plan that has also seen Stockton open new theatres and launched a programme of events in the town centre.

“You can no longer rely on retailing to be the anchor for your town,” he says.

“We’re social animals and need places to congregate, be that through sports, events, civic spaces and, yes, shops. The key is creating an experience that makes people want to be there.”

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The Empty Shops Network

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Empty shops have been used to host cultural activities such as exhibitions

3. Use empty retail space for cultural activities

Dan Thompson runs the Empty Shops Network, a consultancy that helps artists and performers reuse redundant spaces.

Over the last 10 years he’s seen empty retail units turned into theatre spaces, pop-up museums and artists’ studios.

While these sort of activities don’t offer a long term solution for disused shops, he says they do help landlords market buildings to prospective tenants.

“We took a former Allied Carpets showroom in Worthing, put in a bunch of projects over a few months, including a retro market, bumper cars during half term, and an exhibition by the local art college,” he says.

“Someone came along and fell in love with the space and decided to buy it and turn it into offices and studios for his software company.”

Mr Thompson says research by the Empty Shops Network has found that the new office, which employs 150, has boosted local businesses.

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The former House of Fraser building in Edinburgh’s Princes Street could become a Johnnie Walker visitor experience

4. Turned into shops, housing or eateries

According to the Local Data Company, some former department stores will be snapped up by other retailers if they’re in the right location.

In 2018, for example eight BHS stores became B&M Bargains, six went to Primark, four went to H&M and five went to Poundland, with Wilco and Next also acquiring sites.

Ronald Nyakairu, a senior insight analyst at LDC, says some stores have been turned into housing too.

“A lot of these stores are in quite prominent High Streets, with the highest footfall and locations, and people increasingly want to live in these places. They are also often historic buildings which are quite attractive to buyers.”

Former department stores are also being turned into leisure facilities that are more likely to draw people into town and city centres.

Former BHS stores have become gyms, hotels and restaurants, while crazy golf operator Swingers even moved into the first floor of the former BHS flagship store on London’s Oxford Street.

In another example, drinks giant Diageo hopes to secure planning permission to build a Johnnie Walker “visitor experience” at the former House of Fraser building in Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

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