From a gala opening to a gradual decline - looking back on Blackpool's Debenhams ahead of its closure

On Thursday, August 21 2008 Blackpool’s long-awaited Debenhams store threw open its doors for the first time at the then new Houndshill Shopping Centre.

Friday, 7th May 2021, 11:42 am

“This is just the start” was shouted at the opening more than a decade ago after the resort had waited 15 years for a department store to serve shoppers following the demise of Lewis’s back in January 1993.

Sadly tomorrow will be the end for the brand in Blackpool after it fell into administration during the first Covid-19 lockdown last year.

The 65,000sq ft store represented a new hope for Blackpool when it first opened. It took more than two years to construct and an investment of £30m.

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Hundreds waited for the Debenhams to open back in 2008

It was hoped that Blackpool, often seen as the poor relation to other North West retail centres, would benefit from the department store being the flagbearer for the comeback of seaside shopping in the town.

In 2008 online shopping was in its infancy and it would have been hard to predict what people’s shopping preferences would be a decade later.

Anyone who has been into the store in the last week or so will have noticed the difference from the store’s better times.

‘Everything Must Go’ signs everywhere, hardly any stock left on shelves, and boxes of coat hangers with ‘free to take’ show how badly the Houndshill’s flagship store has declined.

The shop, Blackpool's largest, is set to close after 12 years

Blackpool town crier Barry McQueen took part in the grand opening and said the closing of the store is the ‘end of an era’.

He said: “It’s such a shame that it is closing. I can remember thinking how big and great it was for Blackpool when it first opened.

“It was truly a major event for a department store to be opened in Blackpool and I don’t know if there will be another in the resort again.

“I just hope that all the staff can recover from it and that high street shopping will still be possible in the future.”

Coronation Street actress Jennie McAlpine cut the ribbon

Former Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said Debenhams and the Houndshill Centre were necessary to revive business and shopping in Blackpool, especially to attract tourists.

He said: “It is a very sad day but to be frank, their offer across the country has been going a bit downbeat in recent years.

“The Houndshill Shopping Centre was built just before the banking crash of 2008 and it has always had a good run on it.

“It’s never been 100 per cent occupied but it had 60 to 70 per cent occupancy and I remember comparing it with other places like Bradford, that built there centre about two years later and they never managed more than 40 per cent.

The opening was a grand one with even town crier Barry McQueen playing a part

“It’s a very sad day obviously for people who like shopping at Debenhams an it has been a key feature of the shopping centre.

“I think the Town and High Street funds may do a little bit to help but really I think the council and indeed local businesses need to think very hard about what the future strategy for Houndshill is going to be.

“We don’t know of course whether there’s going to be a big return to the high street or not, so some creative thinking around how you might get through all of this will be necessary.

“We can’t just assume that the next five or 10 years everything will just be back to what it was before the pandemic.”

In April 2020, a month into the Covid lockdown, Debenhams called in administrators and started to close down stores across the UK.

Retailer JD Sports was understood to be in pole position to buy the beleaguered retailer but in December, the sportswear firm pulled out due its parent company, Arcadia, going into administration.

Online clothing giant Boohoo then acquired Debenhams and its associated brands for £55 million but agreed to only buy its website.

This means 12,000 jobs will be lost nationally as bricks and mortar Debenhams stores are shutting for good.

Blackpool Council, which own the Houndshill, said it is giving ‘top priority’ to finding an alternative tenant or tenants to fill the unit.

A spokesperson said: “The prospect of closure of a long-established High Street brand such as Debenhams is obviously sad news, not just for Blackpool but for the UK retail industry as a whole.

“Given that the challenges facing the Debenhams group have been going on for some months, we have already been exploring possible contingency options.

“The Council’s economic development team have also been helping Debenhams staff made redundant to find new employment.”

The Gazette’s local democracy reporter Shelagh Parkinson was there on the day as business reporter at the time. She looks back on the opening:

Having been without a department store for many years, the opening of Debenhams was seen as a huge step in putting Blackpool back on the map as a shopping destination.

No longer would residents have to travel to neighbouring Preston for the experience of browsing the luxury perfumes or to get a make-up tutorial at the Estee Lauder counter.

There was even enough merchandise over three floors to use it for your wedding gift list (does anyone even do that anymore?)

Anticipation ahead of the opening day was high, because as usual this being Blackpool it had taken a long time to reach this point.

The new store was part of a bigger expansion of the Houndshill Centre, and brought with it fresh fashion brands and a modern restaurant overlooking the mall.

It’s easy to be snobby about Debenhams - this was no Harvey Nichols after all.

But it was just right for Blackpool as it was affordable, but somewhere for residents and holidaymakers to treat themselves.

And in true Blackpool style it was opened with a fanfare by Pleasure Beach showgirls and a Punch and Judy Show, while Jennie McAlpine – Fiz from Coronation Street - cut the ribbon.

My sources at the town hall tell me it was one of the best performing Debenhams in the North West so it is sad to see it become a victim of a national trend in store closures.

Retail has changed dramatically since 2008 but let’s hope it is not long before we are welcoming another tenant to the site.