A REPORT analysing the use of department store properties across the UK and Ireland has found over three-quarters are now currently occupied or have planning applications pending – revealing a more positive side to the tide of closures which have dogged the retail industry.

The report undertaken by independent planning consultancy, and town centre and retail experts, Nexus Planning, looked at occupancy activity from 2015 to Autumn 2021 in 917 department store locations across nine major retailers, including now defunct Debenhams and BHS, which accounted for 347 properties.

Like the rest of the UK, Wales has experienced department store closures, especially with the demise of BHS and Debenhams, including the store at Eagles Meadow in Wrexham.

But the impact has not been as great as other areas of the UK.

The trend seen in other parts of the country – to develop empty department store spaces – doesn’t seem as prevalent in Wales, according to the report.

In 2015 there were 37 stores; today 26 of these are still operating as department stores (the majority) or have been converted to another business or have plans pending.

Marks & Spencer has retained a strong proportion of its bricks and mortar stores compared with its competitors, and as such enjoys a dominant position in Wales.

During the Covid pandemic its popularity has been bolstered by its food business, and Gwynedd County has been one region to benefit from the chain switching some of its stores to food only.

Affordable retail chains have moved into vacant sites across the country, with Primark taking over two old BHS stores in Conway’s Parc Llandudno Shopping Park and Camarthenshire’s Trostre Retail Park, whilst Home Bargain and Sports Direct have moved into former BHS stores in Cardiff Bay Retail Park and Wrexham’s Henblas Street.

Rob Pearson, executive director at Nexus Planning and an expert on the Government’s High Street Taskforce, says: “Up until now, we’ve been preoccupied with shop closures, but business is incredibly resilient to change, and for every well-heralded story of a BHS or Debenhams closing, there are a multitude of examples of the green shoots of recovery, and that’s where we should now be turning our attention to see what we can learn.

“We are amidst a housing crisis and in many cases these large brownfield department store sites represent excellent opportunities for high-density development combining a range of interesting commercial and community uses at ground floor level.

“Nexus is being approached by a multitude of clients in the private sector seeking to rejuvenate their vacant or under-utilised assets, as well as clients in the public sector who are seeking inspiration and support in helping to deliver real change on their High Streets. A really exciting range of opportunities has been born out of the change in fortune of department stores, propelled by the challenges of the last two years,” said Rob.

The National Picture

  • Over 75% of department store properties are now occupied or have redevelopment plans pending
  • Almost 30% of properties have been repurposed for other uses
  • More than 14% of former department stores are currently – or will be – mixed-use
  • Affordable retailers have spotted opportunities to take prime High Street locations
  • Upward trend in entertainment, culture, independent businesses and organisations taking space