Business Europe

The closure of all 160+ #Debenhams Department stores was a major blow for town centres. But could these once proud establishments actually be the key to our high streets’ regeneration. #RainbowRising certainly thinks so – We look at their exciting new repurposing ideas and others to find the best way to re-store our #highstreets.


Harding, Howell & Co was probably Britain’s first department store. First opened in 1796, it drew customers to them like a magnet. With their prime locations and purpose built, “plug in and play’ capability, high street regeneration experts Rainbow Rising argue that former department stores like Debenhams are perfectly placed to be at the vanguard of our high streets’ regeneration.


We all know the high street needs to reinvent itself, the big question is as what? Here are some of the better repurposing ideas we’ve found: Indoor Sport & Leisure – Create larger indoor recreational facilities for mass sport and leisure activities, whatever the weather. Experiential Retail – Hands-on, live food tastings and product demonstrations or perhaps customising your very own trainers right in front of you. Automated Warehousing – Robotic warehousing makes sense. High street stores have excellent road networks and ready-made loading bays. Massive windows, perfect for product displays and publicity as well as interactive data capture opportunities.


Outdoor markets indoor. Bringing increasingly popular car boot and outdoor markets indoor, being less weather-dependent, which is becoming a growing problem with climate change. This would give a recognised boost to reuse and repurposing as sustainability and net-zero become mainstream, whist reducing traffic and air pollution.


New Homes for All – The perfect opportunity to address the housing shortage and protect our precious green belts. Let’s go one further and end #homelessness once and for all. New Community Areas – This may not be a new idea but it’s still a good one. Offer free space for small #businesses, #charities and community groups to host professional meetings, events and training sessions. #HealthandWellbeing – Customer spending is increasing significantly every year in this sector. In person experiences are a crucial part of this market’s attraction. Converting retail outlets into multi-therapy service providers has been widely used with great success in Japan to attract new footfall.


Incubator Stores – Offer small “bedroom” start-up businesses the chance to grow with new low / no cost pop-up shops, so they can take their businesses to the next level. Some councils have already started experimenting with this. Department Store Dynamics – Why not go one further and re-purpose large #departmentstores to create an exciting indoor market of professional pop-up concessions for local charities and community groups to use. This very practical interim solution helps landlords save money and can be implemented immediately. In fact, it already has – at two massive department stores: Debenhams in Wandsworth and Marks & Spencer in Rochdale, both organised by high street regeneration experts, Rainbow Rising – and more are planned.


Whatever the repurposing route, be it for department stores or entire town centres, long-term visions and blue-sky thinking will not be enough to save our high streets. Local businesses and communities desperately need tangible help now to keep going, while they transition to their fascinating future. For all the negative news stories in the media, department stores have endured for the past 200 years.


Who knows, with practical approaches like those of Rainbow Rising, they might yet reinvent themselves again and rejuvenate our high streets as well.