New report indicates positive future for ex-department stores

A new report from independent planning consultancy Nexus Planning, 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.

The report, ‘Future: Department Stores’, examined occupancy activity from 2015 to early Autumn this year in 917 department store locations across nine major retailers, including now defunct Debenhams and BHS, which accounted for 347 properties. 

By early Autumn 2021, just under half (433) were still operating as department stores.  However, almost another 20% had been repurposed as housing, offices, leisure or other types of retail, while a further 9% of sites had planning applications pending for redevelopment.

Retail dominates redevelopment plans (61%), with brands that did better during the pandemic – affordable and accessible chains like B&M, Primark and Sports Direct – accounting for many of the leases on ex-department stores.  

The report found a growing number of department stores set for a mixed-use retail and residential redevelopment, with retail at street level and private housing occupying the upper floors.  At least 37 former stores have either already undergone this transformation, or about to.

Meanwhile, indoor inflatable theme parks and ball games have been on the rise, with at least three chains eyeing up empty department store spaces as part of their national expansion plans.

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.

“Future focus will inevitably include consideration around the carbon impacts of how department stores are being reinvigorated.  We expect there will be an increased level of interrogation around the supply of raw materials, transportation, construction, building use and its demolition or disposal.

“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.”

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