Debenhams empties Westfield store as landlords fear mass store closures

From the outside, the Debenhams department store at the Westfield shopping centre in West London looks like every other “non-essential” shop during this crisis, closed and in a state of hibernation.

But inside much of the stock has been removed from the 140,000 sq ft space. As it stands, this Debenhams won’t be reopening when the lockdown lifts.

Debenhams is on the cusp of insolvency and is in the process of asking its landlords to accept another round of eye-watering rent reductions.

Westfield has refused and Debenhams has responded by emptying selves and clothing racks and shifting goods to its other sites.

In a statement, Westfield suggested it has already lined up replacement tenants.

“It is a sad day to see Debenhams filing for administration. Our centres continuously evolve, and we have alternative plans, including a combination of retail and other uses, for this premium anchor space...which we look forward to putting in place once life returns to normal."

It is a sign of how desperate things are, that Debenhams appears willing to hand back the keys to such a prime location.

Stock has been moved to other sites.

The Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush is the second busiest in Europe - 31 million people visited it last year.

Debenhams has been an anchor tenant ever since the centre opened in 2008.

On Monday, when Debenhams announced its intention to file for administration, the company’s chief executive, Stefaan Vansteenkiste, said the plan was to “reopen as many Debenhams stores for trading as we can” when the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the virus are removed.

Debenhams appears to be handing back keys to such a key location.

Debenhams has 142 stores and 28 were expected to shut anyway in the next 12 months as part of a previous restructuring of the business, but the landlords I’ve been speaking to now believe a far higher number will close.

They question the motivation of Debenhams’ owners, a consortium of lenders led by the US hedge fund Silver Point Capital.

“What is the endgame?” one landlord told me. "It’s starting to look like [the owners] want to shut it all down. We’re being asked to take another hit. It’s an aggressive rent cut and there are no service charge arrangements.”

They added: “Debenhams is behaving appallingly. It feels like they’re throwing their toys out of the pram. The threat is ‘accept these terms or we will go into administration and you will get nothing.’”

Another landlord said: “This doesn’t look like a turnaround plan, it feels like a wind-up [of the business].

"Debenhams has a few hundred million pounds of stock. They look like they’re trying to extract as much as they can from it and then it will be ’bye-bye’."

Debenhams announced its intention to file for administration. Credit: PA

Debenhams wants landlords to agree to rent payments based on sales.

Landlords have been offered rates of between 2% and 5% of turnover, depending on the popularity of their department store sites.

Landlords aren’t in a strong negotiating position.

If they accept the terms Debenhams’ offers then other retailers will demand similar heavy discounts.

If they reject them, they are likely to end up holding an empty department store and a bill for business rates, as the 'holiday' the government has announced doesn’t extend to landlords.

Debenhams declined to comment.

On Monday the company said “ These are unprecedented circumstances and we [are filing for administration] to protect our business, our employees, and other important stakeholders, so that we are in a position to resume trading from our stores when government restrictions are lifted.

"We are working with a group of highly supportive owners and lenders and anticipate that additional funding will be made available to bridge us through the current crisis period.”