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Concern for Kent's town centres as Debenhams goes into administration

By KentOnline reporter

Concerns for the future of town centres across Kent have been raised after Debenhams went into adminstration.

The department store announced it has gone into administration after a prolonged bid by Sports Direct to take control of the company.

It had two offers rejected to pump up to £200 million into the ailing firm.

It says it will now continue with the "restructuring of its operations" which will include "optimising its store portfolio".

Shoppers and sales posters, outside Debenhams store, High Street, Chatham
Shoppers and sales posters, outside Debenhams store, High Street, Chatham

That is likely to mean the implementation of around 50 store closures.

Chad Griffin, Simon Kirkhope and Andrew Johnson of FTI Consulting LLP were appointed as joint administrators and the company’s shares are now held by Celine UK Newco – an entity owned by a number of the company’s secured lenders.

No stores are expected to close this year but it has left questions over what this will mean for town centres.

Jo James, chief exeutive of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce said: "I think it is really sad when you see long established stores going into administration.

"Nationally, unfortunately they are not turning out to be commercially viable. Particularly with online shopping, I think that it is always going to be a challenge for town centres.

"As far as I'm aware closures haven't been announced and my view is it's premature to talk about which stores are going to close.

Jo James, Cheif Executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce
Jo James, Cheif Executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce

"From a general business perspective, the situation is concerning nationally. It just shows the changing times for all town centre.

"Any loss of a store like Debenhams is very concerning because it's an anchor store in any town centre. Nationally it's concerning with a trend for large stores starting to move from our high streets."

"As we all know the high street of tomorrow will bear no resemblance to the high street of days past. They need to be places where we can shop but also where you can relax and eat and maybe find some leisure."

The blow comes amid the news several other stores in Canterbury have announced closures including Nasons, French Connection, Office and Beaverbrooks.

But Canterbury Business Improvement District boss Lisa Carlson believes the city is better placed than many shopping destinations to continue to thrive because of its historic and international standing and the experience it offers visitors.

Several stores have already left the high street in Canterbury
Several stores have already left the high street in Canterbury

"The national landscape for department stores is really tough but, of course, we don't want to lose our Debenhams," she said.

"We've got to know the staff and manager there and it's been an anchor store in Canterbury for so long but we will just have to wait and see."

Mrs Carlson says that while there has been more turnover of store sites recently in Canterbury, it is a misconception that the situation is grim.

"This is typically the time of year we see more turnover but I think the issue is one of perception because our vacancy rates on average are lower than they were five years ago," she said.

"Because of the national context it feels worse than it is when in Canterbury, while there is more turn than there was, anecdotally I am hearing that 30 to 40% of them are under offer."

Among those is the former French Connection unit which is expected to become a new restaurant in the near future.

"Any loss of a store like Debenhams is very concerning because it's an anchor store in any town centre..." Jo James

She added: "There is some movement in the Cathedral-owned properties and its really encouraging that we are still seeing a lot of interest in Canterbury and the agents will say similarly.

Mrs Carlson says that innovative temporary use of vacant shops, like the The Virtual Philharmonia Orchestra currently in St Peter's Street, was a way of keeping the city centre vibrant and attractive to visitors and shoppers.

She said: "I love that use of empty units and we've been looking around the country for examples of that.

"It is changing and increasingly people will want to come to town and city centres to experience something and have a nice time while doing some shopping."

Mrs Carlson say that the BID is also working with landlords to keep shops looking attractive even when they are shut by using colourful and informative vinyl wraps for the windows, the first example of which can been seen at the former Japanese restaurant in Burgate.

What might fill this spot in Gravesend?
What might fill this spot in Gravesend?

To the north of the county, while the departure of the store in Debenhams would be a blow to Gravesend, Ms James said there are still reasons to be optimistic, pointing out the progress made in St George's Shopping Centre.

But shoppers in the town do not share her optimism.

“Gravesend is like a ghost town," said Ellen Burdock, 55, of Milton Road. “It’s not good news for the town centre – most of the shops shut and go over to Bluewater.

“The high street in general is dying.”

Kate Kemal, 60, of Pelham Road, said Debenhams was her favourite shop in Gravesend, adding: “I always shop in there, I love it – I’m a bit of a shopaholic when it comes to Debenhams.

“I won’t keep shopping here if Debenhams goes – I’d usually go to Bluewater, but do come here for Debenhams as there isn’t one there.”

“It’s not good news for the town centre..." Ellen Burdock

Gillian Watts, 59, of King’s Farm, said losing Debenhams would spell grim news for the town centre.

“There’s going to be nothing in Gravesend now, it’s such a shame," she said. “Debenhams and Marks and Spencer’s were the two main shops in Gravesend.

“Now that Primark’s at Bluewater, there’s no reason to come here really.”

People in Ashford are hoping Primark could make use of the space left if Debenham leaves the up and coming town.

Tony McDonald, 64, from Dymchurch said: "I think Primark would be the one to go in. There are no shops for men in the town and that is something I would like to see.

"Debenhams has never been a busy store and I know I wouldn't miss it if it was to go.

Debenhams in Ashford
Debenhams in Ashford

"I would really miss M&S if it were to go, I think it is a worry for the people of the town.

Linda Weldon, of South Ashford, said it would be a "loss" if Debenhams left the town.

The 69-year-old said: "I think it would be the last straw for Ashford if Debenhams were to go.

"It was a good thing to come to the town, it will be a loss if it had to close.

"The town centres are struggling, when you lose major players it is not good news."

For Chatham - which already has a Primark - Debenhams has been considered the main pull and largest retailer on the High Street.

Many fear if the store closes it could mean the end of the town's high street.

Debenhams in High Street, Chatham could face closure as the company goes into administration (8451286)
Debenhams in High Street, Chatham could face closure as the company goes into administration (8451286)

Just a few doors down from Debenhams is leather jacket shop El Toba which has been running for over 40 years.

Shop owner Mr Pat said: "You can tell they're going to close because they've been clearing the top floor for ages. Debenhams was the only thing bringing customers.

"There aren't any customers coming along here. Debenhams was the only thing that was exclusive here, there isn't any customers left, it was the only thing bringing customers from outside Medway to the High Street.

"The High Street will be ruined, it's already rubbish."

Keen shopper Jane Sams regularly nips over to Chatham from Gillingham to go to Debenhams. She said: "It would be such a shame if Debenham's closes. Me and my sister come here all the time.

"It draws in people from all across Medway. If it closes that will ruin the High Street.

"I just went in and they're clearing the upstairs, there's a big sale on, so it might be only a matter of time until it closes."

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