Lichfield gets a boost as Debenhams takes over city’s ex-TJ Hughes
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The confirmation that Debenhams will be opening up in Lichfield’s former TJ Hughes store in March 2013 is great news for the city, and should give a big footfall boost to neighbouring retailers.
The closure of all but six TJ Hughes stores a year ago left a hole in 51 town and city centres across the country, but the loss seems to have been felt especially strongly in Lichfield, where the 43,000 sq ft TJ’s was not only the anchor for the Staffordshire city’s Three Spires shopping centre but was also the largest store in the city centre as a whole.
As I remarked in January last year, Lichfield’s historic centre – ugly ex-Woolworths (now B&M) not withstanding – has immense charm, with plenty of lovely cafés and independent shops alongside a smattering of big names. However, while it arguably edges nearby Tamworth’s town centre in the charisma stakes, the loss of a department store had left Lichfield’s retail offer looking especially threadbare compared to Tamworth’s vast out-of-town Ventura Park down the road.
The arrival of Debenhams – which doesn’t have a Tamworth store – will give Lichfield a more rounded and distinctive offer, and allow it to better compete with the allure of Ventura’s vast Marks & Spencer and John Lewis at Home.
The biggest question now is over the impact on S Harrison’s much-delayed Friarsgate development on nearby Birmingham Road, where Debenhams signed a pre-let for the scheme’s 65,000 sq ft anchor unit nearly six years ago, only for the economic downturn to curtail this and many other planned retail schemes across the country. Interestingly, more recent references to Friarsgate have referred merely to it being anchored by a “major department store”, perhaps hinting at Debenhams’ emerging interest in a plan B.
Recent changes to the plans – which remain very much alive – have seen a cinema replace the planned hotel, but there’s little sense yet of when work is likely to commence on site. It’s a fascinating snapshot of just how the retail development pipeline has changed: go back to 2007, with Property Week reporting an expected start on site “by Easter 2008”, and it feels like an entirely different world to that in which we’re operating now.
Given that Debenhams has signed a 20-year lease on the ex-TJ Hughes, and expects to spend four or five months preparing the store ahead of its opening, it’s clear that this is no short-term stopgap until Friarsgate finds its feet. So, is there a future for Friarsgate now?
S Harrison’s director David Clancy certainly thinks so, telling the Lichfield Mercury that “the news that Debenhams is moving into the Three Spires Shopping Centre is really positive for the city and will only help to increase Lichfield’s attractiveness to the many potential retailers we are speaking to. Interest in the Friarsgate scheme remains strong, despite the current economic climate, and securing a new major anchor store remains part of our plans, along with a range of independent and brand-leading stores, restaurants, bars, cafés, and a digital cinema operator.”
In response, you might say “well, he would say that”. I do think he’s right, though.
In some ways, you could argue that there was a less convincing case for creating new retail space as long as one of the city’s most important existing retail units remained empty. Debenhams’ arrival in upmarket Lichfield should not only rebuild the footfall that has been lost since TJ Hughes departed, but could well become an even bigger attraction over time.
That, in turn, should benefit neighbouring retailers and also help to put Lichfield on the radar of chains that are not yet represented. M&S currently has a Simply Food store in the Three Spires – and was speculated to be eyeing up the ex-TJ’s site itself – but it’s entirely plausible to imagine it anchoring Friarsgate with a full-line store, buoyed by the halo effect of Debenhams with its overlapping demographic. All that will become clearer in the coming months, however.
Living in nearby Tamworth back in 1994, I remember the excitement over the transformation of Lichfield’s then-tired shopping precinct into the Three Spires, and the locals’ slight sense of anticlimax when the anchor tenant was revealed not as BHS, M&S, C&A or Littlewoods – the staples of retail schemes through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – but as the discounter TJ Hughes. Over time, however, I sense that Lichfield’s shoppers did come to like the new arrival, especially when it was later joined by an M&S Simply Food anyway.
Two decades on, Lichfield’s shoppers can rightly celebrate Debenhams’ vote of confidence in their city – and the arrival of the upmarket anchor store that they always wanted in the first place.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including coverage of both the West Midlands and the department store sector. It also works with retailers nationwide to improve their stores, customer communications and market knowledge. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.