Rush for bargains as collapsed Debenhams reopens its doors

Shoppers rushed for bargains at Debenhams’ flagship store as it reopened for the first time since the chain confirmed it was winding down.

Social distancing appeared to be abandoned as the Oxford Street store opened on Wednesday, a day after the failed business revealed that it was preparing for a clearance sale of current stock before closing down for good.

Online shoppers were also caught up in the race for deals, with queues of over an hour reported on the department store’s website.

People have been placed in a virtual queue to get onto the website. Pic: Debenhams
Image: Online shoppers were placed in a virtual queue Pic: Debenhams

The chain’s collapse leaves 12,000 workers facing an uncertain future and comes after Topshop-to-Burton retail group Arcadia went into administration, putting 13,000 jobs at risk.

Fashion retailer Bonmarche, which employs 1,500 people, added to the high street carnage when it also called in administrators.

It came as non-essential retailers were reopening their bricks-and-mortar stores on Wednesday after England’s month-long lockdown ended.

Preliminary data from Springboard showed that across the country, footfall – a measure of shopping visits – was up by 85% on last week but remained subdued compared to the same time last year – down 22%.

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Sky’s Ivor Bennett reported from Debenhams’ flagship Oxford Street on Wednesday morning.

“The queue of customers stretched all the way down the side of the building, as hundreds waited patiently for Debenhams’ flagship store on Oxford Street to open.

“But come 10 o’ clock, when the doors were unlocked, social distancing was quickly abandoned.

“Masked shoppers rushed the entrance. Staff had to temporarily stop people from coming in to prevent a scrum. Scenes reminiscent of Black Fridays past.

“It wasn’t long before everyone was admitted but not all were satisfied with the savings on offer. While one shopper emerged clutching three pillows (“50 percent off” she cried), another left empty handed, telling me he could find better discounts online.”

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Ex-Debenhams chairman explains what went wrong

Earlier, many online shoppers were left disappointed, with complaints on social media about having to wait long periods or being “kicked out”.

“50 minutes to get onto the @Debenhams website then after 5 minutes get kicked off to the end of the queue because my time is up what stupidity is this?!,” wrote one person.

Others commented they had seen up to half a million people waiting in the virtual queue ahead of them.

Some people were more sympathetic to the workers at risk of losing their jobs and said the rush to grab deals was “sad” and “embarrassing”.

Debenhams’ collapse came after attempts by administrators to find a buyer for the chain failed.

Sportswear chain JD Sports, mooted as a possible rescuer, pulled out after it was spooked by the demise on Monday night of Debenhams’ biggest supplier, Arcadia.

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A liquidation of the UK business will take place if no buyer is found, resulting in 124 stores closing nationwide and the workforce being lost.

Administrators assured suppliers and other creditors, including landlords, that all contractual obligations would be met in full.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told MPs the government “stands ready” to help workers affected by job losses at Arcadia and Debenhams after the “deeply worrying” announcements.

Debenhams’ problems precede the coronavirus crisis that has devastated the high street, with a Sky News tracker showing the retail and hospitality sectors taking the biggest hits in terms of employment.

The decision to wind the company down presents an opportunity for rivals to snap up at least some of the stores and Debenhams’ online operation.

House of Fraser and Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley would be a likely candidate to seek a deal – potentially saving some of the threatened jobs.

The billionaire has also expressed an interest in Arcadia.

Sir Ian Cheshire, who was ousted as chairman of Debenhams during a tussle with Mr Ashley in January last year, told Sky News he was sure stores would trade through the Christmas season and it was a “sad day” for the company.

He said the business included “probably 70 stores and a very good website which I’m sure someone will be buying”.

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