Retail giant Marks & Spencer will relocate its Liverpool store in August leaving behind a 350,000 sq ft hole in the middle of Church Street – who or what will fill it? Tony McDonough reports
Marks & Spencer will open up at its new Liverpool home on Tuesday, August 15, trading from 70,000 sq ft of space at the former Debenhams store in Liverpool ONE.
It will be the end of an era for the retail giant which has been in its current home, the Grade II-listed Compton House since 1930. Its departure will leave a gaping 350,000 sq ft hole in what is still Liverpool’s premier shopping street.
Liverpool City Council is the freeholder of the huge site which stretches back almost to Williamson Square. However, despite its departure M&S is still the leaseholder and the city council has told LBN “the ball is in their court”.
But despite repeated calls by LBN to the M&S head office in London, earlier this year and in the last few days, the retailer has so far not returned any messages and is refusing to engage on the matter.
This uncertainty will add to Church Street’s woes. In mid-July LBN reported that The Vintage Store, which opened in May 2022 in part of the former Topshop outlet opposite Compton House, was also to close imminently. This is part of the Liverpool ONE estate.
In recent times Liverpool’s record in keeping empty city centre shop units to a minimum has been comparatively successful.
Figures released by Liverpool BID Company in June revealed just 5.4% of retail units in Liverpool city centre were empty – less than half the national average of 11%. The BID covers Liverpool city centre’s retail district with the exception of Liverpool ONE.
Jennina O’Neill, chair of Liverpool BID’s Retail & Leisure Board and centre manager at Metquarter said Liverpool city centre was “bucking both a national trend and a regional one”.
She said: “What those investments do is they generate confidence. We know that there will also be movement and change over any given year, especially with the challenges high street businesses are facing now.”
Those challenges cannot be underestimated. UK retail insolvencies have surged 56% in the past year, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the highest level in almost a decade.
In the 2022/23 financial year more than 1,900 retailers went bust, up from 1,243 in the previous years.
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: “The past five years saw Britain lose 6,000 retail outlets, with crippling business rates and the impact of the COVID lockdowns a key part of decisions to close stores and think twice about new openings.”
Of course one of the biggest long-term impacts is the unstoppable rise of e-commerce. According to the Office for National Statistics, the internet accounted for just 2.8% of retail sales in the UK in November 2006.
By the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit, that figure was nudging 20%. During COVID lockdowns, when non-essential retailers were closed, it peaked at almost 38%. Post-pandemic that has come down again and has now settled on around 25%.
So what will this mean for Compton House?
Liverpool’s recent record at filling big spaces vacated by retail tenants is actually pretty good. There were fears for the future of the former BHS store in Lord Street when the chain collapsed in 2016. However, it was swiftly filled by Swedish fashion brand H&M.
Similarly, when US retailer Forever 21 closed its large outlet on the corner of Church Street and Whitechapel, it was filled by fashion chain Next. In turn, Next’s former Church Street home is now occupied by sports retailer Decathlon.
Most impressive was Liverpool ONE owner Grosvenor’s transformation of the former Debenhams store. When the chain closed its high street stores in 2021 Liverpool ONE lost one of the two anchor tenants, the other being John Lewis, from its 2008 launch.
Debenhams occupied 180,000 sq ft – a massive space. That is now fully let with 100,000 sq ft being taken by M&S and the rest being occupied by Gravity Max, a £10m leisure outlet that will include a go-kart track.
It seems hard to imagine a retailer big enough to occupy the whole of Compton House. Within the city, TJ Hughes is set to vacate the London Road headquarters it has occupied for almost a century. Could Church Street provide its new home?
Completed in 1867, Compton House stands on the site of a former building by the same name that was destroyed by a fire in 1865. It was owned by Plymouth-born brothers William and James Reddecliffe Jeffrey and contained a clothiers and a drapers.
Once rebuilt in 1867 Compton House was occupied by the same business. However, this closed in March 1871. For two years it remained empty before being repurposed as a hotel with retail outlets including a drapers, hosiery and hatters on the ground floor.
Thanks to Liverpool being a major port for Transatlantic steamers the hotel became popular with American tourists. But as the shipping trade declined the hotel eventually closed. M&S moved into the building in 1930.
Perhaps the future of Compton House could lie in a return to leisure. Liverpool ONE, and the Arndale Centre have both benefited from the rise in popularity of hi-tech multi-faceted entertainment centres.
Or maybe it will return to its pre-M&S days and once again become a hotel. Since Liverpool was European Capital of Culture in 2008 its visitor economy has boomed, worth £5bn just before the pandemic.
In the last few years multiple new hotels have opened in the city centre and that momentum has so far shown no sign of slowing.
For the moment, Liverpool City Council is not getting directly involved in speculation over the future of Compton House. However, given the prominent location of the building, it will surely have to get involved if a new occupier isn’t found quickly.