Tears and happy memories as Debenhams closes its doors in Mansfield
Tears and happy memories are flowing among staff and customers as the closure of an iconic store marks the end of a shopping era in Mansfield.
Debenhams once fondly regarded as “the Harrods of north Nottinghamshire”, brings down the shutters for the final time on Wednesday at the Four Seasons Shopping Centre.
It follows the collapse of the nationwide chain, triggered by financial problems but hastened by the migration to online shopping and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thousands have lost their jobs.
"Everyone is heartbroken,” said Julie Howe, long-standing employee at the Mansfield store, which opened about 45 years ago. "It is devastating.
"When you think of the store in its heyday, it is unbelievable that it has come to this.
"It has been an amazing store, and it is so sad that it is closing.”
Debenhams was a flagship attraction when the Four Seasons was opened by famous former boxer Henry Cooper back in the mid-1970s.
One of the first members of staff was Glenis Thompson, who is still there now as a sales adviser in the cosmetics department. She has racked up 35 years at the store, having also spent time at Debenhams in Luton.
At its peak, the Mansfield store employed about 200 staff. Now it is down to 35.
“All the staff have been amazing,” said Julie, 57, who started in 1986 and worked her way up to the role of supervisor in the cosmetics department. “Their work ethic and knowledge have been unbelievable.
"Many have already been made redundant, but the rest have carried on, even though they knew what was coming. Many of the customers have been in to thank them.
"Debenhams Mansfield has always been one of the best in the country, winning lots of awards and accolades within the company.
"It was once so popular that it was known as the Harrods of north Nottinghamshire.
“Some of our customers have built their lives around the store, meeting their families here, bringing their children here, starting their day with breakfast in the restaurant. What are they going to do? Where are they going to go?
“As well as cosmetics and the restaurant, the departments included menswear, women’s wear, children’s clothes, accessories and jewellery.
"But after Wednesday, everything will be gone. And of more than 50 retail units in the Four Seasons, 21 will be empty.
"It is so sad for all of our staff because, even though they are being made redundant, they won’t get a good liquidation package. I have been here for 35 years, but I won’t even get a year’s salary.”
Last Saturday, the remaining staff held a farewell get-together at the store, bringing back memories, taking photos and offering advice for the future.
Julie herself remembers the golden age for Debenhams when “everyone wanted to shop here” and the store did a lot of work in the community, including fashion shows and supporting charities.
Back in the 1980s, she even won a customer-service competition, run by the Chad and open to all retail businesses in the town.
Her prize was a memorable part-business, part-holiday trip of a lifetime to Mansfield in Ohio, USA.
It proved to be just one of many jaunts around the world she has made with Debenhams as she helped to set up new stores.
"Now it feels as if my heart has been ripped out,” Julie said.
"The closure makes me so upset. Obviously, online shopping has had a big impact, but we have been stripped of our assets in recent years. We were once a very profitable company.
"After the store closes, I will have two weeks off to chill and re-evaluate things.
"But I think the nature of the Covid pandemic means retail will never be the same again.”
Debenhams is hoping that shoppers will mark the shutdown by snapping up some bargain buys in the Mansfield store’s special closing-down sale.
On Monday, Julie reported: “We’re nearly empty! You wouldn’t believe it, but there’s hardly anything left. Everyone is grabbing last-minute bargains.”
A spokesperson for Debenhams added: “"With up to 80 per cent off in our Mansfield store, there are some incredible deals. Customers are urged to shop now while stocks last.
"On Wednesday and Saturday across the country, Debenhams will close its doors for the final time in its 242-year history.
"Our sincere thanks go to all of our colleagues and customers who have joined us on this journey.
"It is time to say a final goodbye.”
The Mansfield store is one of 49 Debenhams stores to close this week, bringing down the curtain on more than two centuries of trading by the company.
It traces its roots back to 1778 when William Clark opened a shop in London’s West End, selling fabrics, bonnets and parasols.
In 1813, businessman William Debenham invested in the firm, which was renamed Clark & Debenham.
It quickly became a household name during the 20th century, selling a range of goods, including clothing, household items and furniture.
By 1950, Debenhams had the distinction of being the biggest department store in the UK with 110 outlets.
It expanded at a rapid rate, and in 2006, it announced plans to double its number of stores to 240. As recently as 2017, it was still opening new shops.
However, Debenhams became a classic victim of changing habits as shopping moved increasingly online. In 2018, it announced the largest financial loss in its history, £491 million.
Falling profits and mounting debts led to the administrators being called in twice in two years. And the coronavirus pandemic, which led to shop closures, proved to be the final blow.
Takeover bids collapsed, and all last-ditch attempts to save the business failed.
In January, the thriving online firm, Boohoo, stepped in to buy the brand for £55 million, but it was not interested in keeping open the shops, signalling the end for Debenhams on the high street.