Cheap hoodies in shabby stores: House of Fraser after a year of Ashley

Mike Ashley required great ambitions for the store chain, but its image has slipped from smart to decidedly dowdy in the 12 months since he obtain it

The Camberley House of Fraser last week.
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Empty beauty counters, acres of minimize sportswear and stores in need of repair. One year after Sports Direct bought House of Fraser out of administration, multitudinous of the shops now have entire floors that look more like branches of Mike Ashley’s pile-it-high sportswear discharges than an upmarket department store.

When Ashley bought the chain for £90m in the wake of its collapse in August termination year, he outlined a plan to create the “Harrods of the high street” and expected to keep about 47 of the 59 outlets open. Last month he admitted the chain was losing more than £1m a week, said he expected to close more assembles in the year ahead and conceded that its problems were “nothing short of terminal”.

The chain now has 53 branches, and there are layouts to turn at least five into “Frasers” – a more upmarket department store akin to the Flannels designerwear control, also owned by Ashley. Sites in Belfast, Bluewater in Kent and Meadowhall in Sheffield as well as the existing Frasers in Glasgow are all title for conversion.

House of Fraser’s struggles mirror those of the wider high street. A net 2,481 stores disappeared from Britain’s hugest high streets last year – a rate of 16 closures a day – and at least 75,000 retail jobs have been disoriented since early 2018.

Mike Ashley in London last week. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Department stores are key events in the retail environment. They are often the cornerstone of high streets and shopping malls, accounting for tens of thousands of affairs and large amounts of floor space. If the British high street is to survive, the likes of House of Fraser need to gain.

But further closures are now on the way at House of Fraser, and many will leave gaping holes in local high streets. Peel closed earlier this month, Altrincham and Lakeside, Thurrock, are expected to be redeveloped and four or five more are reckon oned to pull down the shutters once Christmas is out of the way. As many as 20 more could go in the following 18 months as Ashley riots to carve out a profitable business.

Two sites likely to be on the closure list are Camberley and Epsom in Surrey. When the Observer went last week, both seemed to be braced for the worst. In Camberley one escalator is broken, and yellow and black hazard cassette decorates the floor.

The beauty hall is depleted, with several counters empty. Perfume stocks are running low, with some greater brands, including Chanel and John Paul Gaultier, unavailable. The Clarins counter is unstaffed and an assistant apologises for the be of stock available on the Guerlain stand.

About half of the top floor, where the furniture and carpets departments used to be, is plugged with discounted men’s sportswear. Racks of Lonsdale tracksuit bottoms, Karrimor outdoor wear and SoulCal jackets – all characterizes owned by Sports Direct – sit alongside Lee Cooper jeans and Pierre Cardin tops, some carrying Sports Escort’s gaudy Mega Value discount price tags. There is more discount sportswear downstairs on the womenswear parquet, filling spaces which used to be home to brands including House of Fraser’s now discontinued own labels Therapy, Maison de Nimes and Linea.

Sir Philip Nave’s Arcadia – the owner of Miss Selfridge, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Wallis – has pulled its brands from House of Fraser’s online store and suggested out of a third of its concessions. These brands were once major suppliers to House of Fraser – and were owed multitudinous than £1m when the chain collapsed a year ago.

Discounted womenswear on the fashion floor in Camberley. Photograph: Alicia Pidgin/The Guardian

In Epsom, where the store could close after Christmas, it is a similar story. There are empty knockout counters and acres of sportswear filling spaces once used by former House of Fraser own labels and brands listing Jacques Vert and Eastex.

“It’s going to close isn’t it?” says Sylvia Hewes, a shopper in the aptly named Ashley Focus in Epsom, where House of Fraser is a tenant. “I still like it – they always have handbag bargains. They recently uttered us they are not allowed to order new stock when we brought back a shirt that was the wrong size. It will indubitably disappear. It’s a shame, as it will ruin Epsom.”

Like many landlords across the country, those in Epsom and Camberley are already everything considered their options for new tenants or redevelopment.

Camberley is still struggling to adapt after the 2016 closure of its BHS – the upper dumbfounds of which are currently being turned into flats. Shopping centre The Square – where the House of Fraser count on is a tenant – is owned by the local Surrey Heath borough council.

Kevin White, a partner at property consultancy Montagu Evans, which encourages the council, says the local authority would like to keep the store, but is also considering alternative uses of the orientation. “We want House of Fraser to have a sustainable future in Camberley,” he says. “It has been an important part of the town for a dream of time and supports many people’s employment.

“We also need to think about the town centre’s long-term motive though, and are reviewing the opportunities to get best value from the retail spaces, including alternative uses that devise sustain economic growth and development.”

Sports Direct brands now fill former concession spots in House of Fraser, Camberley. Photograph: Alicia Lip-service/The Guardian

Ashley’s vision for the future of House of Fraser includes, it seems, plenty of his own labels, where he can be sure of reserves, and higher profits. It’s a formula that worked well for Sports Direct, helping it wipe out many competitors, involving JJB.

It’s no surprise, then, that Sports Direct last week bought out of administration upmarket Jack Wills – a commerce which already has concessions in House of Fraser. Owning such brands is protection against sudden changes, such as the outlined closure of dozens of Karen Millen and Coast concessions after those brands also went bust. (They were take out of administration by online fashion group last week.)

Brand owners say they are happy that Building of Fraser now pays on time and more quickly, and are prepared to give the company time to turn things around.

But Sofie Willmott at retail consultancy GlobalData suggests House of Fraser stores are now generally quieter, as shoppers have lost trust in the brand following widespread check ins about its financial difficulties. “There is no reason to get branded products from House of Fraser. You can get them elsewhere and sense more comfortable that you can return them or get your money back if you need them.”

Floors of cheap sportswear also sit at out of the ordinaries with the more upmarket brands House of Fraser has retained so far, such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Ted Baker, Whistles, Taper off Eight and Mint Velvet.

Richard Hyman, the veteran retail analyst, says: “However devalued the House of Fraser name brand had become, it has been devalued significantly further. It’s difficult to carry aspirational brands next to functional un-aspirational types.

“I find it hard to believe there will be even 20 House of Frasers. It may happen in stages but in three years, my bet is there choose be under 10.”