Many people are also left wondering what their high streets will look like if these longstanding stores close down, after a year in which thousands of shops were forced to shutter due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 242-year-old department store chain said it will continue to trade through its 124 UK stores and online to clear current and contracted stocks but once the liquidation process is concluded “UK operations will close”.
Debenhams had already axed 6,500 jobs across its operation due to heavy cost-cutting after it entered administration for the second time in 12 months.
Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group went into administration just a day before, plunging some 13,000 staff into distress about their future. The group has 444 stores in the UK and 22 overseas, with brands including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burton.
No redundancies have been announced, as a result of the appointment of Deloitte to handle its next steps, and stores will continue to trade. Many are due to reopen on Wednesday when the current coronavirus lockdown in England lifts.
According to the Centre for Retail Research, 140,437 retail jobs were lost in the UK this year, as of 6 November, with job losses forecast to rise further to 235,704 by the end of the year.
An employee of a Debenhams store near Brighton tweeted: “As a Debenhams colleague, am absolutely distraught at the news of “winding down” the business, but please continue to be nice to the colleagues when shopping, a lot of us are scared and uncertain as to what the future holds, please be considerate when shopping.”
The employee, who did not want to provide her name, told The Independent: “We were under the impression that we were doing quite well and were optimistic we would find a buyer, so today’s news did come as a bit of a shock. Staff were only told this morning around 9am that the administrators had started the process.”
According to the employee, staff were told their jobs would “essentially be made redundant if there wasn’t a buyer soon” and stores could begin closing between the end of January and the end of March 2021.
“It’s very rough and quite upsetting because I’ve worked there for two-and-a-half years, and it’s my primary source of income as a student,” she said.
“It’s just unbelievable to think so many jobs are at risk, on top of coronavirus killing off so many jobs and businesses, it’s going to be awful as a whole for anyone trying to get a job in the industry, which is competitive as it is.”
She urged members of the public to be considerate to staff at Debenhams, as it tries to sell off remaining stock.
“Since the first lockdown, the abuse we have had has been quite frankly disgusting,” she said. “The amount of times we get yelled at a day… Please be nice, be considerate to us.”
Paddy Lillis, general secretary at the Usdaw retail union, said: “It is devastating news for our high streets that Debenhams’s administrators have announced a closure programme.
“Throughout Debenhams’s difficulties the company and then administrators have refused to engage with Usdaw, the staff are being treated appallingly, and we don’t believe the law has been complied with in the past.
“Over 200,000 retail job losses and 20,000 store closures this year are absolutely devastating and lay bare the scale of the challenge the industry faces.”
Geoff Rowley, of FRP Advisory, joint administrator to Debenhams, said the company failed to reach a deal due to the extreme challenges of the economic landscape, “coupled with the uncertainty facing the UK retail industry”.
“The decision to move forward with a closure programme has been carefully assessed and, while we remain hopeful that alternative proposals for the business may yet be received, we deeply regret that circumstances force us to commence this course of action.
“We are very grateful for the efforts of the management team and staff who have worked so hard throughout the most difficult of circumstances to keep the business trading.”