Debenhams stores have stood empty in the middle of Welsh towns for an entire year with no idea how to fill them

Uncertainty continues to surround huge empty retail units in Wales’ three biggest cities – a year after Debenhams last closed its stores. The retail giant closed in Newport’s Friars Walk shopping center on May 4 last year and did the same 11 days later on May 15 in Cardiff’s St David’s shopping center and the Quadrant in the heart of Swansea.

It was just months after the company announced that attempts to rescue its 124 stores had failed and the department store, which had been operating for 242 years, would go out of business. To get the latest WalesOnline newsletters sent directly to you by e-mail for free, click here.

In January 2021, the business was sold to online retailer Boohoo in a £55million deal, but it still led to the closure of all its stores and the loss of thousands of jobs. . As well as the jolt the collapse of Debenhams has caused to the labor market and to the high street itself, what has become of the large units left empty by the collapse of the business?

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In Cardiff, Debenhams had been a main feature of the city’s shopping landscape for generations and was a flagship store in St David’s shopping center along with Boots, M&S and Primark. The store itself was filled with three floors filled with stock and took up a total of 65,000 square feet of space. But today, exactly one year after closing its doors for the last time, the store remains empty.

In January, the mall said it would notify buyers “as soon as possible”, but there are no specific details on what could potentially occupy the huge space in the middle of the Welsh capital. Cardiff Council said any questions about the site are best answered by the owners of the building, but attempts to glean information from them have so far proved fruitless, leaving the future of the unit as a mystery as we head into the summer of 2022.

A sad sight: Inside the Debenhams store in Cardiff days before it closed for good last May

Carmarthen is an area of ​​Wales that has seen a proactive approach in filling a large empty retail space. Wales’ oldest town suffered a major blow last May when its own Debenhams store closed, as it was not just the biggest store in town but the one around which a whole regeneration project had been based. When St Catherine’s Walk shopping center opened to much fanfare in 2010, it did so by tying much of its hopes around the neck of Debenhams, a sprawling two-storey store in the center’s main location .

Since emptying, the unit has once again been used as a temporary site for pop-up shops, providing local and independent businesses with the opportunity to showcase their wares in a high street environment. You can read more about it here.

In addition, there are now plans to transform the unit, which was also the place of counting during the recent municipal elections, into a center offering a range of health, welfare, learning and cultural services under a same roof. While it may be disappointing to some that the site is no longer home to a retail giant, the plan, which is still in its early stages, is expected to see the creation of spaces for leisure, culture, and spaces exhibition space alongside health and education facilities, as well as tourist information, guest services and more.

In Newport, Debenhams was the flagship store for Friars Walk when the mall opened in 2015. As in other parts of Wales, Newport town center has been affected by the closure, with the mall having said last year that he was “exploring potential opportunities”. for unity,” offering hope that something might be in the pipeline. However, as is the case in Cardiff, a year has now passed and the unit remains empty. This week the center was pushed once again on what the future holds for the unit, and Simon Pullen, center manager at Friars Walk, offered fresh hope that positive news could be imminent.

Debenhams in Newport on the store’s final day of trading – 4th May 2021

“We are currently looking at a number of potential options for the former Debenhams store,” Mr Pullen said. “Clearly the unit is of a significant size and was built specifically for Debenhams to their specification when the center opened, so it is a very complex and bespoke unit. We are however committed to filling the unit as soon as possible with the most appropriate mall and city use that the available space allows, so watch this space.

West of Newport and Cardiff, along the M4 corridor, you’ll find that Swansea has also been hit by store closures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Debenhams was considered by many to be the beating heart of the city center shopping scene for over 40 years, having opened its doors in the Quadrant Shopping Center in 1978. That was, of course, until last May.

Although Swansea Council does not own the unit, a spokesperson for the local authority said they “recognize the importance of this retail site and continue to explore options for the put back into service”. The mall’s image as a whole looks brighter than some had feared, despite continued uncertainty surrounding the former Debenhams store. New stores have opened elsewhere in the center, which maintains “stable” footfall, according to operations manager Lindy Emms.

“The closure of Debenhams has been a huge loss for the Quadrant and the UK high street,” she said. “However, footfall at the center has remained stable with many retailers exceeding targets. While we lost Debenhams in 2021, we have since gained several new retailers which offer our customers new and exciting reasons to visit, from The Entertainer and Clothing Culture to specialist sports retailers Rugby Heaven and Moti.

“We have even seen significant investment in existing stores, including jewelery giant, Ernest Jones, who chose our branch to be the first new concept store in Wales; this is a direct result of the exciting developments of Copr Bay that shape the city.We have also seen the arrival of many local pop-up stores through the Pop-Up Wales initiative, where we are able to offer more than just retail experiences. people have reached out to our Dementia Hub and Swansea Pride pop for support – We are proud of how the center continues to adapt and are confident that our few remaining empty units will soon be filled.

The Swansea store has been empty for exactly a year

Retail expert Laura James, a business and management lecturer and program manager at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, believes the delay in filling empty Debenhams units in Welsh towns may be due to a ‘culture shift’ which means decisions about what can fill these spaces need to offer resilient and efficient solutions, thus ensuring a sustainable future for cities and shopping streets.

“The development and advancement of online shopping has certainly caused a shift in consumer behavior and indeed required high street retailers to rethink their offering,” she said. “The inability to predict and adapt to this shift in online shopping behavior has undoubtedly impacted those who have struggled to adapt, as the shift to online shopping has been accelerated by Covid .

“This should not be confused, however, with the death of the main street – we are a long way from that. It is a rebirth of the main street into vibrant new communities and a reintegration of being the heart of the city. The development of the Carmarthen Debenhams unit in partnership with others has been great and success stories have emerged which is so encouraging to see Innovative shopping experiences that provide opportunities for local independent retailers can offer consumers a new shopping experience with diversity and choice.

“Online shopping will continue to grow, but will develop alongside the high street seamlessly as these spaces regenerate. While large retailers have attracted consumers, this is no longer necessarily the case as these retailers adopt a more dominant strategy online.”

Ms James also believes that innovative but simple ideas – such as introducing free parking offers – can play a key role in bringing shoppers back to the streets in the wake of Covid-19 and the effect this has had on city center retail since April 2020.

“Like any other industry, the high street has changed and adapted and that can also benefit us as consumers,” she said. “Main Street is our community – a place to shop, meet friends for coffee, work and engage in community projects. Some people will need a certain degree of incentive and that could be done with free parking and holding community events and this has already been seen in a number of town centers The best thing we can all do to help our high street is to continue to shop locally and leave the time to grow and prosper.

Ms. James is a firm believer that the glory days of Main Street are not a thing of the past. On the contrary, the future may be positive for the city and downtown retail market, even if it will never be quite the same as before.

“We will continue to see the community come together and hear the success stories of our great independent local businesses,” she added. “We will see partnerships between local authorities, educators and local communities working closely together to empower individuals and drive success – listening and adapting to create the bustling high street that will be the new glory days. .”

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