A brisk easterly was blowing along Princes Street and my hands were freezing so I dodged out of the rain and into a shop to buy some gloves.
I was a poor student, just arrived in Edinburgh but that was fine because the store seemed to have everything on special offer. Best of all, it had few customers so my purchase was swift. Walking down the big staircase and out the door, a man said “thank you” and a flash bulb went off.
It was my flatmate who alerted me the next day to the fact that I’d been one of the last customers in RW Forsyth and my picture was in the paper to prove it. It was an inauspicious end for one of Edinburgh’s great department stores.
I was reminded of that moment this week with the news that Jenners is to cease trading on May 3 after 183 years in business. On paper, it is a disaster for Edinburgh. Over 200 jobs will be lost and the future of an iconic brand in the city is in jeopardy. But let’s take a closer look.
The rot set in when the store was sold to House of Fraser in 2005. Online retail grew 33 per cent that year so traditional department stores had to invest and evolve or fade and die. Jenners chose to stand still but it’s fate was sealed in 2018 when House of Fraser was bought by Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct group.
Over the last couple of years it has slid into looking like a department store in some provincial Russian city that’s closed to foreigners or anyone with taste. With piles of hoodies and everything always on sale, Jenners became a bad imitation of what it once was. Last Christmas they couldn’t even be bothered to put up the iconic tree in the atrium.
When the doors closed, it felt like the kind thing to do.
House of Fraser say they are quitting because they couldn’t reach an agreement on a suitable rent with the landlord. In fact, Anders Povlsen could be the key to unlocking Jenners’ future.
The Danish billionaire bought the building in 2017 with a track record of investing in projects for philanthropic reasons. Under House of Fraser, Jenners’ labyrinthian layout felt like an obstacle to selling white cotton sports socks. The company did nothing to highlight the glory of the amazing Victorian Renaissance-revival-style building.
In contrast, Povlsen’s company have called it “the prettiest building in the world” and the “the jewel in the crown of Edinburgh”. They have vowed to keep it operating as a department store and to “preserve the grand Victorian age of retail” at the building.
Alongside a passion for history and architecture, Povlsen also has strong retail credentials as the boss of the Bestseller chain and the biggest investor in Asos. If anyone can find a way of making the department store model work in this day and age, it’s probably him.
On paper they are a tricky proposition but with the right strategy and management, they work. In a similar heritage building in London, Liberty is a growing business. So Jenners may be down at the moment but it’s definitely not out.