Independents in the south-east of England have expressed concerns that a wave of store closures in the region could result in “ghost towns”.
Data compiled for Drapers by the Local Data Company (LDC) found that the south-east is at highest risk of multiple store closures.
Out of the proposed list of 22 Debenhams closures expected in 2020, 12 are in the region.
Southsea in Portsmouth faces the greatest risk: nine stores within a 3 km radius of the closing Debenhams branch are under threat of closure. These include stores belonging to Arcadia Group, Monsoon Accessorize and Ann Summers, which are all expected to launch their own store-closure programmes in the coming weeks.
“It’s so sad seeing big retailers in the area go because it pushes more people online and lowers footfall,” said Tom Sivyour, store manager of sports and skatewear independent Bored of Southsea. “It makes it a lot harder for independents because it puts people off coming to the area entirely and will turn it and other areas in the south-east into ghost towns.
“However, it could be argued that the closures of big stores, such as Debenhams and Knight & Lee [the John Lewis & Partners store that is set to close in July], works in our favour because it pushes any footfall on to us.
“It also paves the way for independents to open stores in the area, but realistically business rates and rents are too dear for this to happen.”
He added: “Hopefully these closures provide a wake-up call and push future generations to keep spending on the high street rather than online.”
Meanwhile, six retailers are at risk of closing within a 3km radius of the Debenhams stores in Eastbourne and Canterbury.
Daniel King, owner of menswear independent Urban Industry in Eastbourne, said: “In Eastbourne half of the high street is empty and the rest is just full of the same old shops.
“It is so behind the times that we are only just starting to get retailers in like Fat Face – and popular food chains like Nando’s.”
King added: “Having a Debenhams in Eastbourne was the only saving grace for the town. The department store has been there for as long as I can remember. It’s a massive shop. There is no way that it will get filled because no retailers will go in and open in a cavernous store.
“Other huge properties are going to be empty nearby too, such as TJ Hughes [closing later this year]. They’re two really big stores and I don’t know how they will be filled.”
He added: “There is a monopoly of the ‘big guys’, such as JD Sports, Sports Direct, buying property around independents and making it difficult for us.
“Then there are the multiples, such as Fat Face and Joules, who have realised that they have too many stores in lots of other towns, so places like us will lose out. For instance, I’ve noticed several retailers signing deals in the area and then pulling out before they are due to move in.
“It is providing an opportunity for more independents to open in the area. However, lots of the empty units are too big. There is also an issue with exclusivity when the ‘big boys’, such as JD Sports, take our brands on, too. This means we have to keep finding new brands or customers find that they can buy online more cheaply. We would end up with all players fighting over what brands are left.
“Another ongoing issue is the high business rates and rents. If something isn’t done, Eastbourne high street is going to be filled with just coffee shops, hairdressers, restaurants and estate agents.”
John Lambert, managing director County Clothing in Canterbury, agreed: “The south-east is one of the most affluent areas in the UK, so it’s inevitable that when times get hard, it will be the area that is affected.
“The number of store closures in the south-east is concerning – and particularly concerning for Canterbury because it has had several multiple store closures in recent months, including French Connection, Crew Clothing, Laura Ashley and quite a big independent called Nasons opposite Debenhams, which is also going to close.
“I’m not surprised about the closures of big retailers because they’re constantly discounting and that’s what has to stop, or it will be the death of the high street.”
Lambert added: “It is concerning that there will be so many empty units in Canterbury. It will have a knock-on effect for trade and footfall, but I’d like to think it would offer opportunity for indies to open up in the area.
“However, Canterbury has extremely high rents and rates, so this probably won’t be feasible if the issue isn’t addressed soon.”