Why Jenners’ departure from Princes Street was inevitable – John McLellan
The departure of Jenners after 181 years will be a sad day for Edinburgh, but like a much-loved elderly relation the Grand Old Lady of Princes Street hasn’t been herself for years, while to mix the family metaphor the deafening music in menswear was the retail equivalent of dad dancing.
As the news circulated, I imagine more than a few conversations will have included the question, “When was the last time you shopped at Jenners?” And at a guess, a common answer will have been “Last Christmas”.
In a world increasingly dominated by branded “social commerce” stores and online shopping, Jenners has struggled for years to maintain its place as a top retail destination all year round – good for a quick one-stop-shop for last-minute presents but there was not much it could truly claim was unique apart from the name and location.
Ironically, it was department stores like Jenners which pioneered social commerce, with genteel tea rooms and restaurants and a home delivery service for their well-to-do customers to shop at their leisure. But maintaining vast product lines and funding high overheads and staff costs while being unable to refresh the brand without sacrificing identity left it and other famous marquee retail names struggling for relevance. Where would Harrod’s be without London’s overseas oligarchs and kleptocrats?
House of Fraser is turning into the Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience, and Forsyths, Littlewoods, C&A and BHS have long gone from Edinburgh’s premier street. How long does anyone seriously give Debenhams, only bought out of administration by its lenders eight months ago after rebuffing a £150m rescue offer by Mike Ashley of Sports Direct; the same Mike Ashley who now owns the Jenners operation.
Edinburgh’s premier street it certainly used to be, and will still retain its place in the dark blue Monopoly streets as a leisure destination for locals and tourists alike if the city council’s review of planning restrictions now under way accepts the reality of the threats it faces and the inevitability of change, not hold back the tide. It has not been the premier retail street for some time and as Stirling University’s professor of retail studies Leigh Sparks observed this week, that crown has gone to George Street. There has been inevitability about the shift ever since Harvey Nichols and Multrees Walk opened 17 years ago and the vast new St James Centre will finish it off.
The St James Centre was rumoured to be a potential new home for Jenners as speculation about its departure from Princes Street circulated in recent weeks, with the name being retained for a branded clothing-led rival to Harvey Nicks in a large, anchor unit in the new centre.
Set to rebrand itself next month as the Frasers Group in what looks like a bid to shake off its downmarket discount image, Sports Direct has indicated it will retain a major presence in Edinburgh but has until 2021 to decide what to do. Although Sports Direct was quick to deny it would be moving to St James, it felt more like a public bargaining position than an outright rejection, because if not in the new mall itself it can’t be far away because that’s where the shoppers will be.
As for the Jenners building, Danish billionaire owner Anders Povlsen has a year or so to plan its new future as a hotel, shopping and leisure complex and it’s as well he has deep pockets because on top of the reported £50m for paid for the building in 2017 he could easily spend the same again on construction given the sensitivities in converting a Grade A listed property.
Worth an estimated £4.5bn from his Bestseller clothing empire, he has recruited celebrity architect Sir David Chipperfield, who knows his way round Edinburgh’s mysterious planning regime, having steered through the controversial Dunard Concert Hall on the other side of St Andrew Square. Concrete anyone?