Analysis: Is Jenners' closure the end of Princes Street's last department store or a warning shot?

It is the iconic grand old lady of department stores with a history panning back almost two centuries.

Now House of Fraser has announced that historic retailer Jenners is to close its doors in Edinburgh for good later this year.

The press release that slipped out this afternoon gave no suggestion the brand could be resurrected elsewhere in the city, such as the new St James Centre, which had been previously touted as a possible site for Jenners’ relocation.

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Edinburgh's iconic Jenners on Princes Street announces closure date with loss of...
Jenners is to close, with the loss of 200 jobs.

Instead, House of Fraser said rather enigmatically, 200 jobs would be lost after it was “unable to reach an agreement” with Anders Polvsen, the Danish billionaire owner of the Princes Street building, which has been Jenners’ home since it was first established in 1838.

Their statement was later countered by one from Polvsen vowing Jenners “will reopen” and that Frasers’ announcement came despite a “substantial rent reduction already granted to Frasers and rent free periods to cover all lockdowns”.

Whatever the battles ongoing at boardroom level, today Edinburgh’s main shopping street feels uncharacteristically quiet – and not only because of temporary closures due to the coronavirus lockdown.

News the street looks set to have lost three major retail outlets within 24 hours, including its last two department stores, casts a strange light on the world-famous thoroughfare.

Just a short time ago, the street was bookended by two House of Fraser department stores. Jenners, which was bought by House of Fraser in 2005, was left chiefly to its own devices by its new owner, with its rabbit warren-esque layout a mystery to all, but the most seasoned shoppers.

The other branch, at the west end of the city centre, closed down 18 months ago.

Meanwhile, tucked away in the middle, the fate of embattled department store Debenhams was sealed today when it emerged the brand only – and its online operations – is to be bought by online retailer Boohoo.

Its 118 physical stores, the Edinburgh branch already earmarked for closure to be turned into a hotel, leisure and retail “hub”, are confirmed to shut.

The move mirrors earlier brand-only acquisitions made by Boohoo, which snapped up Oasis, Coast and Karen Millen, but not the associated stores. Debenhams administrators described it as "the best outcome for Debenhams' stakeholders".

Further east, another anchor retailer for Princes Street, Arcadia’s Topshop and companion brand Topman, could also be set for an online-only existence after internet clothing specialist Asos announced it was in exclusive talks over buying the brands out of administration.

“These anchors are going to be gone,” says retail analyst Graham Soult of Canny Insights.

“If you add to the department stores the Arcadia brands and the retailers which were already looking to move into the St James Centre when it opens, it really turbo charges that debate as to what the future is for Princes Street.”

Discussions have been ongoing for more than a decade about bringing the upper floors of the buildings lining Princes Street into use – and transforming the street into a thriving leisure destination. Current city by-laws make it very difficult for restaurants and cafes to open at street level.

Indeed, each department store closure has been accompanied by an unveiling of plans to transform the grand and historic buildings into something spectacular. The West End branch of House of Fraser is currently undergoing a transformation by drinks giant Diageo into the “Johnnie Walker experience”, a multi-million pound tourist mecca for international whisky fans.

Meanwhile, Mr Povlsen has previously unveiled plans to reinvent the historic structure, to create a hotel, cafes and rooftop restaurant and bar, alongside a potential raft of luxury shops linked to his clothing empire Bestseller.

Mr Soult says: “It’s about ‘how do you reinvent Princes Street into something that can be a real icon for Edinburgh?’ This is the time that you can’t mess around anymore.”

Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling, agrees.

He says: "There is a lot of talk about Oxford Street in London in the same respect. But they are both great locations in the heart of what are really good cities.

"The question is ‘how do you make Princes Street what it should be?’ It is an iconic street which could be tidied up a lot, but it has the views of the castle and the gardens. But it is unlikely to be useful as just retail these days. You need different reasons for people to visit.”

However, the short House of Fraser press release issued on Monday highlighted the need for landlords and retailers to “work together in a fair manner”, raising the possibility the Jenners announcement could be a warning shot – and a rather public ousting of Mr Povlsen’s failure to come to a “fair agreement” with House of Fraser, which the chain hopes could shame him into a U-turn on his terms.

The release added: “Despite the global pandemic, numerous lockdowns and the turbulence caused for British retail, the landlord hasn’t been able to work mutually on a fair agreement, therefore resulting in the loss of 200 jobs and a vacant site for the foreseeable future with no immediate plans.”

It is not known whether the store, which is currently closed due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions, will re-open before its closure date of May 3.

Prof Sparks said he believes the move could be a clever move on the part of Jenners’ owner.

He said: "It could well be a warning shot. There is a lot of hard ball going on in terms of deals with property and House of Fraser in particular.”

If not a warning shot, this is undoubtedly the end of an era for Scotland’s retail sector.

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