Good news / bad news, the decline of Debenhams & the death of the High Street

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I love writing this column. However, sometimes I wish there were more positive news stories to comment on. Call me Pollyanna if you want (although that is the name of Britmums’ fab Health & Fitness editor, ho ho) – but where is all the good news in the world? Each month, I review the topics that have been high on the news agenda and if it’s not Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit, then it’s something equally soul-destroying.

Thank goodness, then, for Emily Coxhead and The Happy News, Emily’s quarterly newspaper that is ‘a platform to share positive news and wonderful people’. I wasn’t all that familiar with Emily’s work before she featured all across the media – including Aussie breakfast TV, no less – last week, but I’m now a huge fan. If you don’t yet subscribe to the paper and follow her on Instagram, then get to it, pronto!

Anyway, back to negative news – sorry. I’m saddened to be reading this week about the potential insolvency of Debenhams, and what that might mean for its 25,000 employees. I sound ancient saying this, but when I was a child, going shopping ‘in town’ and visiting stores like Debenhams, House of Fraser, British Home Stores and Marks & Spencer was a big occasion. It was 30 years ago, but it might as well be 300, given how much things have changed. We used to put on nice clothes to go ‘in town’ and we’d have our dinner (lunch) in the BHS café or McDonald’s, when it was still quite new and the height of sophistication.

BHS is now no more, and House of Fraser almost disappeared a few months ago, until it was acquired by Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley. My local House of Fraser looks like a pound shop today. At least it’s no longer out of place among the real pound shops, the boarded-up shops and the countless betting shops. Our Marks & Spencer is closing next month. No-one gets dressed up to go ‘in town’ anymore.

Mike Ashley’s recent bid to make Debenhams an additional part of his empire had been rejected at the time of writing. Retail forecasters are predicting that the chain will close branches and jobs will be lost within a year.

Times change, of course. There’s a world of difference – an online one, to be specific – between my rose-tinted childhood memories and the way we live and shop today. Yet couldn’t more be done to save the UK High Street, both its independents and our long-established department stores?

The situation in my home city is mirrored across numerous other UK towns and cities. Out-of-town shopping centres have taken footfall from city centres, and councils have failed to address how to lure shoppers back: an especially disastrous oversight considering how the internet has completely transformed consumer behaviour.

I don’t think it’s too late to save the Great British High Street altogether. There’s still demand for bricks-and-mortar stores and face-to-face interaction. Stores with a strong brand and a clear market offer should do OK.

Is it too late to save the Great British Department Store? Probably. I might be leaning on the 70s ‘Grace Brothers’ stereotype, but I can imagine that younger shoppers especially see them as belonging to another era, and that there’s no place for them in today’s retail landscape, when it’s possible to shop around and find everything under one (virtual) roof online. I really hope I’m proved wrong.


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About Laura O'Donnell

Laura is mum to Ted and partner of Graham Norton (yes really, and no, not that one). Laura left a glamorous life working in PR – first in London, then Sydney, Australia – to return to her less glamorous hometown of Hull, Yorkshire. She set up a PR consultancy and writes a column in Hull Daily Mail, which used to be about culture and going out; it’s now about culture and attempting a social life with a sleep-averse one-year old. Laura blogs at Only Teethin’, loves good guitar pop music and can be bought with donuts. Find her on Instagram @TheLauraOD.