Picture Credit: [Cropped) “Day 17 – Blockbuster” by Hornbeam Arts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0




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You might be forgiven if you haven’t noticed that several once-famous brand names have disappeared from the high street. Vanished, gone forever, their pursuit for profit and growth failing against the twin threat of online shopping and spiralling rents. Other reasons for failure include failing to innovate, poor marketing, failing to cater to customers’ needs and not moving with the times. Here are some names that you won’t see on your high street today:

BHS (British Home Stores): The UK brand of BHS shut its doors for good in June 2016. Originally founded in 1928, the popular retailer had accumulated debts of more than £1.3billion, including a pension deficit of £571million.  BHS bosses had attempted to negotiate a rescue deal more than two months before the closure which eventually fell through.  

John Collier (the window to watch): John Collier was a British chain of shops selling men’s clothes. It was started in Leeds in 1907 by Henry Price and expanded to over 399 stores across the country, most of which traded under the Fifty Shilling Tailors brand. In 1958, the company was sold to UDS, which renamed it John Collier. It continued to trade within UDS until 1983 when UDS itself was sold to Hanson plc, who sold it to a management buy-out team. In 1985, the company was sold to the Burton Group, but the brand was discontinued and no longer exists. 

Borders: This international book retailer first appeared in Britain in 1998.  It broke away from its American parent company in 2007 to become recognised in its own right. Something you couldn’t have with online shops was the comfortable browsing experience of books, music and film complemented by Borders’ in-house coffee shops.  But it wasn’t enough. It collapsed in June 2009 in the face of mounting debts blaming its declining sales on a rapidly changing market that stemmed predominantly from the increasing availability of digital books. 

Toys R Us: The American toy store outlet Toys R Us was founded in its modern iteration in 1957 and was a popular destination for parents to treat their children to an assortment of branded games and electronics. But it was forced to close all of its stores in Britain and America in April 2018, blaming the brand’s lack of innovation and the unnecessary burden of warehouse space costing a fortune in rent. More than 3,000 jobs were lost when the company went bust. 

Staples: Staples was a stationery store that disappeared from Britain’s High Street in 2016 after its UK branches were sold to restructuring firm Hilco. The management’s plans for a multi-million merger with its fellow American supplier Office Depot in May 2016, was abandoned on competition grounds. 

Shoe Shops: In 1891, a shoemaker called John Sears set up a small shoe manufacturing business in his workshop. His humble enterprise became the Sears, the vast conglomerate that encompassed shipbuilding, Selfridges, William Hill the bookmakers and the Mappin & Webb jewellery chain. At its peak in the 1980s, Sears’ footwear division – the British Shoe Corporation (BSC) – accounted for one in four pairs of shoes sold in Britain. But Britain’s footwear industry was starting to show its age and was in deep trouble: declining sales, rising shop costs and a flurry of fashionable and cheap entrants into the sector eventually changed how and where we buy shoes. Freeman, Hardy Willis was a major chain of footwear retailers in Britain, established in 1875. For many years, there was a branch in nearly every town in the UK. In 1929, the company was acquired by Sears plc, and went on to own the Trueform, Curtess, Dolcis, Manfield, Saxone, and Lilley & Skinner brands. In the early 1990s, the British Shoe Corporation converted approximately half of its 540 Freeman Hardy Willis branches into Hush Puppies shops. It sold the remainder to an entrepreneur whose business empire collapsed within a year. After providing “Shoes For All The Family” since 1875, Freeman Hardy Willis was no more by 1996. Forty-four former FHW branches were sold to Stead & Simpson. British Shoe Corporation itself closed in 1998.

Littlewoods: Littlewoods was a great little shop that many people were sad to see leave the British high street, although it’s still around as a catalogue.  It was founded in the early 1920s by John Moores of Liverpool and was originally intended as a betting shop but flourished into more of a department store, and at one time in its history, the shop was the largest family-owned retail firm in the UK. It ceased operations in 2005, and in the end, just under half of its shop locations were sold to Primark. 

Tandy Electronics: Tandy was a serious contender to the Dixons and Comet chain stores, but it ultimately couldn’t compete on the high street with the other competitors and lost out. Tandy seems to exist in a limited form online, but it’s definitely not the electronics store we knew.  At one point, it had over 222 shops worldwide, but now they are all gone. 

Virgin Megastores: This was definitely one of the biggest names to disappear from the High Street. Virgin Megastores were a fantastic place for movies, video games and music. Virgin Megastore still exists in the Middle East and North Africa and still runs over 44 stores in these regions.  

Focus: Focus was a big DIY chain that couldn’t keep up with the competition. In 1998, investors decided to swallow up some of the company’s main competitors and made a move for Do It All DIY. Focus and Do It All joined forces to become the aptly-named Focus Do It All, complete with a brand new logo. But it couldn’t be saved from administration after trying to weather the recession and in early 2011, the closure of 120 Focus Do It All stores resulted in 3,000 job losses. 

Poundworld: Poundworld was around for years competing against other £1 stores, but it went the same way as so many other stores and was lost, closing in August 2018. The chain, founded in the mid-1970s, became one of the biggest pound shop mainstays on the high street, opposite its number one competitor Poundland.  

Woolworths: Also known as Woolworth’s and even Woolworth, Woolworths was one of the best-loved high street stores of the nation for decades. It was the largest department store chain back in 1979, and at its peak, it had over 800 shops in the UK but closed down in the 2000s – every now and then, there is talk of a Woolworths revival, especially as people seem to remember the brand with fondness. But it hasn’t happened yet. 

Athena: Remember Athena? It was that random high street chain that always had generic artwork in the window. Athena was founded in 1964 and enjoyed a fairly successful run before going into administration in 1995 due to a massive decline in profits. Some shops remained open in Exeter, but the last one finally closed its doors in 2014. However, you might not be aware that Athena still exists as a thriving internet business. It seems to sell plenty of generic travel posters and album covers, but it was always worth a look! 

Blockbuster: Before the days of Netflix, Blockbuster soared as the UK’s most popular video rental shop. But as a result of such high competition online, it went into administration in September 2010 and again in 2013, closing its remaining stores that year. 

C&A: C&A was a classic high street store originating in the Netherlands but headquartered in Brussels. It first began operating in the UK in 1922, and business quickly started booming.  However, competition from other department stores over the years meant that C&A couldn’t keep up with new trends and started looking increasingly out of place. It was hit with a downturn in the UK clothing market and didn’t manage to survive. In 2000/2001, the company closed all of its UK stores bar 11 locations which rival Primark acquired. 

And that’s not all

It doesn’t end there: many other shops are absent from our high streets, although some have an online presence. To name but a few: MFI, Gamleys, Gadget Shop, Past Times, Army & Navy Stores, Allders, Tie Rack, Principals, Dewhurst the Butchers, Comet, Austin Reed, Banana Republic, Laura Ashley, Monsoon, Oasis, Dunn & Co, Accessorize, MacFisheries and Thomas Cook.  Sadly, the list grows ever longer.

Click here for defunct department stores of the UK.

Finally, why not read Who’s gone bust in retail, published by the Centre for Retail Research, available at: https://www.retailresearch.org/whos-gone-bust-retail.html

Martin Pollins
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