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  1. ITV Report

Debenhams to shut 50 stores as 4,000 staff face redundancy

Debenhams has unveiled plans to axe up to 50 high street shops, putting around 4,000 jobs at risk, as profits plunged at the struggling department store chain.

The group said the closures will take place over a three to five year period and the announcement comes alongside a dire set of financial figures.

Debenhams swung to a £491.5 million loss in the year to September 1 after being stung by exceptional write-downs of £512.4 million, primarily relating to store and lease provisions, IT costs and impairment charges.

Business rates alone cost the company £80 million in the last year, giving online competitors an advantage over bricks and mortar shops.

£491.5m
the loss suffered by Debenhams in the year to September 1

The rise of online shopping over visits to the high street, and the fall in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote have also hit the business hard.

The loss compares to a £59 million profit in 2017.

  • Business Editor Joel Hills believes Debenhams "still has a pulse", but points to the fact that shares in the business changed hands at 9p a share on Thursday, suggesting investors do not believe the company has a terribly bright future

Speaking to ITV News, CEO Sergio Bucher said that Debenhams "is a profitable business" but admits challenges in the current retail climate have significantly affected trading.

"The market is difficult, and that's why we have introduced our new strategy," he said.

"We think there is a hundred great destinations where we can be profitable, we have to address the rest."

However, when repeatedly questioned by ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills on whether he expected Debenhams to make a profit in the next year or not, Mr Bucher refused to give a definitive answer.

On potential job losses, he insisted that the company will be trying to minimise job losses when stores start to close.

"I'm really, really working hard with all of my team to preserve as many jobs as possible and keep the company safe," he added.

However, when questioned by ITV News, Mr Bucher would not reveal which stores had been earmarked for closure and how many jobs could be lost.

"I can't put a number," on how many jobs could be lost, the Debenhams boss said, but admitted less people would be employed by the company in the future.

When asked if the Oxford Street branch could close, the CEO said he would "not go through the list of stores", but did confirm that one of Debenhams' newest stores, the Watford branch, which opened at the end of September, would not close.

Debenhams is also the subject of takeover talk, with speculation building that Mike Ashley is set to merge it with his newly-acquired House of Fraser.

Mr Ashley owns just under 30% of Debenhams, close to the threshold at which he must launch an official takeover bid.

Speculation building that Mike Ashley could try to take over Debenhams. Credit: PA

The store closures will bring the Debenhams estate down to about 100 and come on top of 10 earmarked earlier this year.

As part of the shake-up, Boss Sergio Bucher will look to take £130 million of costs out of the business, including suspending the dividend.

It has been a tough year for retail in 2018 and our performance reflects that. We are taking decisive steps to strengthen Debenhams in a market that remains volatile and challenging.

We are taking tough decisions on stores where financial performance is likely to deteriorate over time.

– Sergio Bucher

Sales for the year also slipped 1.8% to £2.9 billion while like-for-like revenue fell 2.3%.

Mr Bucher insisted: “Debenhams remains a strong and trusted brand with 19 million customers shopping with us over the past year.

“With a strengthened balance sheet, we will focus investment behind our strategic priorities and ensure that Debenhams has a sustainable and profitable future.”

The rise of online shopping has contributed to the closure of many high street chains in recent years, and has contributed to Debenhams' fall in profits.

Between the 2013 and 2016, Mr Bucher headed up Amazon's - one of Debenhams' online rivals - fashion business in Europe, but despite the online giant going from strength to strength, the 54-year-old said he had no regrets about leaving.

Woes at Debenhams comes as a raft of retailers including New Look, Carpetright and Mothercare also embark on store closures programmes.