Retail bosses confident for city’s future despite Debenhams and Arcadia collapse

Bosses at Liverpool ONE are confident for the future of the city’s most popular shopping centre – despite a day of national retail turmoil that has seen tens of thousands of jobs put at risk at Debenhams and Arcadia.

Donna Howitt said executives at the company were not surprised by the news Debenhams stores across the country are set to close, with the future of Topshop also at risk – two retail giants with a huge presence in the city centre.

She said the challenge now is how quickly the city can respond to it – but that there is “light at the end of the tunnel”.

That’s because while big brands may start to “disappear” from the high street, there are various other online-based companies looking for a physical presence. That’s especially the case in Liverpool, she said, with companies looking to the city as the first port of call to launch their product outside of London.

Speaking at an online webinar on Tuesday, hosted by Invest Liverpool entitled ‘The City at the Forefront of the UK’s Economic Recovery’, she said rather than online “killing off” the high street, the two will now work together.

Ms Howitt, director of marketing and communications at the centre, said: “What Covid has done is fast forward – sped things up by a significant amount of time.

“Would we say we’re surprised by some of the news that is coming out? No, I don’t think anybody would say that they’re surprised by it. It’s just how quickly we can respond to it.

“There are brands that are choosing Liverpool over and above other cities, and recognising it has built a real reputation for doing things differently, for standing up to a challenge, pulling together, and the challenges that we will face. Nobody wants to see large, open spaces vacant within the city centre – that’s not what we’re about at all. The ability to react to those challenges I think is absolutely there.”

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Ms Howitt said there is a “belief” in the city that brands are turning to Liverpool as the “place to go” to launch new products outside of London – to “work with a very engaged audience”.

Tuesday’s event was held in association with Avison Young, and also featured its Liverpool managing director Stephen Cowperthwaite as well as Bill Addy, chief executive of Liverpool BID Company.

Ms Howitt added: “I think it is about that willingness to step back. The high street is in a state of flux and change is on the horizon, but change has always been on the horizon.

“We know that people have had to, through necessity, spend a lot more online than they definitely would have done had the pandemic not struck.

“But we’ve also seen a lot of fantastic data that tells us that people are willing to hold off until the shops reopened again, because they want to come out and they want that experience.”

Topshop and Topman store on Church Street, Liverpool. Photo by Colin Lane
Topshop and Topman store on Church Street, Liverpool. Photo by Colin Lane

Last-ditch rescue efforts for Debenhams fell through on Tuesday, meaning branches across the UK are to close, with 12,000 jobs at risk. That followed Topshop owner Arcadia collapsing into administration on Monday evening, putting 13,000 jobs under threat.

But Ms Howitt said she is still upbeat that online and physical retail will be able to work hand in hand, and that the future of high streets is still bright.

She said: “I remember three, four years ago now, journalists were always having the conversation over ‘is online going to kill the high street?’

“No, it’s not. It’s omni channel. And it’s how the two work together, and actually, that’s still the challenge now.

“We’ve got some big brands that will start to disappear from the high street, but we’ve got some new brands that are actually doing fantastic online, and they want a high street physical presence.

“It’s how we adapt to that and it’s how we address lease agreements. It’s how we address embracing them, bringing them into our city into new marketplaces that they don’t really know, but we absolutely do know.

“It’s the power of data. It’s the insight, and it’s having that highly engaged audience that responds to a lot of the research that is out there.

“We’ve seen it throughout the last few months. There is real light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s just being able to use that data and use it quickly, and so far, I think the city region and a number of the businesses have collaborated to really set the pace on that, and that’s the direction of travel for us to continue to work in such a way.”

Business Live – North West