End of an era for the High Street as Debenhams closes its doors for the final time

Video report by Rob Smith

The last of the region's Debenhams stores will be closing their doors for the final time this weekend.

They've been a staple on the UK's high streets for generations and their closure heralds a sad farewell for many.

Manchester based online retailer Boohoo has bought the Debenhams brand and it will continue to trade online but all the stores are closing.

Browns of Chester Credit: ITV Granada

One of the North West's best known Debenhams is Browns of Chester. It was founded in 1780 and has been open on its Eastgate Street site since 1791.

The Department store became part of the Debenhams group in 1977 but kept its original name.

Ladies department at Browns of Chester in the 1960s Credit: Cheshire Record Office

The ornate interiors attracted generations of shoppers but the doors finally closed on this historic store on Wednesday

The early years

Debenhams began life as a drapers store in 1778 at 44 Wigmore Street in London’s West End, where William Clark sold expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols.

In 1813, William Debenham offered an investment in the firm, which then became Clark & Debenham and marked the beginning of the Debenham family involvement.

Things started to happen for the firm as they expanded into Cheltenham in 1818 with a store matching the design of the original exactly.

According to the store’s own account, the following years saw great prosperity thanks to the Victorian fashion for family mourning – by which widows and other female relatives adhered to a strict code of clothing and etiquette.

At the midway point of the 1800s, Clement Freebody put up an investment, which changed the store’s name to Debenham & Freebody.

Offices would open in South Africa, Australia, Canada and China over the course of the next five decades.

Debenhams Credit: PA

Financial troubles

After decades of growth, the warning signs were clear when sales started to slide in 2013. The company announced a profit warning, amounting to a 26% plunge, and shares dropped 12%.

Shortly afterwards in January 2014, Simon Herrick, the company’s chief financial officer, resigned after the profits warning.

There were some encouraging figures in 2015 as Debenhams enjoyed its first rise in annual profits for four years, up 2.9% in underlying pre-tax profits.

But the following years would not see a turnaround in the retailer’s fortunes.

In October 2017, Debenhams reported a collapse in annual pre-tax profits, tanking 44% to £59 million in the year to September 2.

A year later, shares plunged 17% after KPMG was called in to help draft emergency plans to save the high-street giant. Plans were unveiled for 50 shops to be closed, threatening 4,000 jobs.

On December 1, 2020, Debenhams announced it is winding down the business, having already axed 6,500 jobs across its operation due to heavy cost-cutting after it entered administration for the second time in 12 months.