As the future of Beales remains in doubt, Drapers takes a visit to Bournemouth to find out what impact its closure would have on the town.
Department store chain Beales appointed KPMG as administrator last week, after 139 years of trading. The local council in Bournemouth, where the retailer’s flagship store and headquarters are based, refused to reduce business rates, saying it would “set a precedent”. So, despite efforts by CEO Tony Brown and positive conversations with landlords, the situation is looking increasingly bleak.
Brown told Drapers: “Beales has established itself as the heartbeat in each of the towns in which we trade but with costs moving only upwards and the tremendous strain of business rates - which no longer reflect the market value of rent - businesses of our size become incredibly difficult to navigate.
“With the disproportionate costs versus pure-play online retailers, what I would ask for is a three-dimensional view of all the costs high street retailers have to pay, in order to come up with a sensible formula.”
While the loss of its 23 stores and 1,052 staff would be another harsh blow to high street trading in general, to the local community in Bournemouth the possible closure of the company’s flagship store represents more than that.
To many in the seaside town that has already lost its Marks & Spencer, Next and Monsoon stores – and has a sense of impending doom about House of Fraser and Debenhams – the loss of Beales would be more than just another casualty of austerity measures and high business rates and rent. It would feel like the final beat of the retail heart of the town.
It will be a very sad day if it closes. I started working there at 15
Joan Tunstall, former Beales buyer
Everyone you encounter, it seems, has worked at, shopped at, or has some connection to the store that was once regarded as the Selfridges of the south coast.
Joan Tunstall, a former Beales buyer from Bournemouth, said: “It will be a very sad day if it closes. I started working there at 15. My father was general foreman of a local building firm and while he was doing renovations there, he got me the job. The management sent me to college twice a week to learn about retail and I became their youngest-ever buyer.
“It was a wonderful place to work. I met three other 15-year-old girls there and we still meet regularly to this day to reminisce about Beales.”
Malcolm Morrison, a retired sub-editor, secured his first job at Beales and has equally fond memories: “In the summer of ’67, I joined Beales straight from school and found myself happily working for a family-run company. I was thrust into the third-floor toy department, where I sold Scalextric sets and Hornby model trains.”
Paula Collins retired as head of fashion at Beales 15 years ago, but still works there as a fashion consultant for womenswear brand Gerry Weber.
“We’re all absolutely devastated,” she said. “We don’t know what is happening, but are just hoping we’ll be saved. Many of the staff won’t have jobs to go to. I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve been offered an alternative position – but there aren’t that many vacancies around.”
The story of Beales began in 1881 when Bournemouth was a Victorian boomtown – and it has been bound up with the wider history of the resort ever since.
A young John Elmes Beale dreamed of owning his own business. Beale’s father was a ship’s captain who had been lost at sea when the boy was young, and his mother arranged for John to be apprenticed to one John Russell, a draper in Weymouth.
Beale worked for eight years at the shop but after being refused a junior partnership in the business, decided to set up a shop of his own.
Having agreed not to compete with Russell’s shop, Beale considered towns including Dorchester, Poole and Southampton, before settling on Bournemouth, which was rapidly expanding, its population having trebled in three years.
Beale rented a new building in the town but, as Russell refused to release him until after Christmas, he had to open his shop without being there to manage it.
In the run-up to the opening, he’d work for Russell until midnight on Saturday, then catch the mail train from Weymouth to Bournemouth where he’d work all day Sunday in his shop, doing carpentry, shop-fitting and setting out stock before taking the newspaper train back to Weymouth in the early hours of Monday morning.
His majestically monikered JE Beale Fancy Fair & Oriental House, an emporium of exotic wares and Far Eastern-inspired gifts, finally opened on the town’s Old Christchurch Road. Trade was slow to begin with, but with the opening of the Bournemouth West railway station, excursion trips to the resort became quite the thing and by spring 1882, Fancy Fair was stocked high with buckets, spades and model boats at prices starting at a penny. The crowds soon followed.
The founder was succeeded by his son, Bennett, whose son Frank then took the reins, after working in New York’s Macy’s department store in the 1930s. Frank died in 2001 but, during the 20th century, was a huge cog in the Beales business wheel, acquiring tools for the trade through studies at Oxford and the London School of Economics.
With bags of retail knowledge, he returned to Beales which, by then, had added another Bournemouth store, Bealsons, to its portfolio. Frank’s son Nigel, also took a leading role at the store later in the 20th century.
The Bournemouth shop was bombed during World War II. A new Art Deco-style store was built, and is one of the town’s most familiar buildings.
After the company floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1995, stores in Kendal, Yeovil, Worthing, Ealing, Tonbridge and Horsham were purchased. Further acquisitions followed: Hexham, Rochdale, Harrogate, Skipton, Spalding, Skegness and Cinderford. Several of these stores have since closed, and the chain was taken back into private ownership under CEO Brown in 2018.
So, what went wrong? The usual suspects – reduced footfall as a result of other store closures, increased overheads, out-of-town shopping – all undoubtedly played a part. Some also cite an increase in begging and the rise in homeless people sleeping rough in doorways.
A nearby independent retailer agreed but added that, although Beales is a lovely store, it has not moved with the times: the way people shop has changed dramatically, and Beales simply has not.
If the store closes, it will have an awful impact on Bournemouth without a doubt
Paula Collins, former head of fashion at Beales
Another independent said Beales failed to differentiate its offer from other department stores: “If you have great stock, people will still come to your shop. Beales stocks what everyone else does. House of Fraser, Debenhams – it’s all the same. The only way to be successful is to have products that aren’t easily available everywhere.” Beales stocks brands including Joules, Jaeger, Phase Eight, White Stuff and Tommy Hilfiger.
If the store does close, some locals fear footfall in the town will be hampered: “With Marks & Spencer gone and now the possible closure of Beales, the centre of Bournemouth is fast becoming an unlikely place for locals and tourists to shop,” said Beales shopper Mary Bebo, from nearby Poole.
Former Beales head of fashion Collins agrees: “If the store closes, it will have an awful impact on Bournemouth without a doubt – 75% of our customers are locals. They are regular shoppers who visit the town very frequently.
“Tourism will suffer, too, because we’re regarded as a destination store for holidaymakers, and the summer season is one of our busiest and most profitable times. Footfall will go down considerably.”
However, the owner of one independent store nearby was confident his business would not be negatively affected: “I don’t think it will directly impact that much on us because we sell to a younger market. Beales customers tend to be older, so they probably wouldn’t have come in here in the first place.”
Katy Broomhead, senior PR manager at professional services firm KPMG, said that, as of 23 January, there was no change to the company’s status: “At the moment, it remains the same: all the stores are still trading, despite the closing-down posters in the windows. No redundancies have been made, and it’s very unlikely there’ll be any changes now this week.
“In fact, no deadline has yet been set by the administrator as to when the stores would have to close if a buyer isn’t found.”
On the subject of buyers, when asked if there might be a glimmer of hope, she said that it was an appropriate phrase: “Previously, there were two interested parties and now that we’ve got to this stage, something could always come to the table, but it’s very much just a glimmer of hope. There should be updates next week.”
If anyone can turn it round, Tony Brown can
Nigel Hedges, Bournemouth West council member
Bournemouth West council member Nigel Hedges remains hopeful a buyer will step in at the eleventh hour: “I got the name Nigel because of Nigel Beale. My mum worked in the store and decided to name me after him because he was such a nice man. I worked there, too.
“I’m hoping there’s more than just a glimmer of hope for the store and, if anyone can turn it round, Tony Brown can. Tony was trained by Sir Philip Green and there’s nothing [Brown] doesn’t know about retailing, so if anyone can save that ship, especially the mothership [Bournemouth store], he’s the man to do it.”
Bournemouth Central Conservative councillor Mike Greened added: “I really hope that there will be a good outcome for Beales and that the council will help them as much as we possibly can to keep trading in the town. However, I do think the owners will also have to shoulder part of the burden themselves while the council supports them along the way. If that happens, I am sure a compromise can be reached.
“We have many thriving businesses in the town and we’ve seen increased footfall year on year. There is growth, so we are moving forward into the future with plenty of optimism. We can do it without Beales, but it would be far better if they are with us.”
In a 2002 interview for Dorset Society magazine, John Beale’s great-grandson, Nigel Beale said: “Our flagship store will always be here in Bournemouth, and we have no intention whatsoever of moving our headquarters out of this wonderful town.”
Beales staff and Bournemouth businesses and residents are hoping the declaration proves true.