Ghosts of business past: Empty shop units for rent for £100,000

Royal Arcade Norwich

Remember the fun you used to have here? Inside the former Jamie's Italian restaurant, empty since 2019. But with high rents and uncertain times for retailers, how can such massive units be filled again? - Credit: Roche

Walk through Norwich city centre, King's Lynn or even Holt and where once there was life, there are now empty retail units. Who's picking up the tab? Caroline Culot reports.

Nothing symbolises the true economic effect of Covid more than the inside of the former Debenhams stores in Norwich and King's Lynn.

High Street, King's Lynn, Norfolk

Inside the former Debenhams in King's Lynn - Credit: Archant library

Peer through the entrance doors and the sad remnants of a once lively superstore stare back. Empty shelving where the Mac beauty counter once was, bare mannequins once adorned with the beachwear that greeted you as you walked in looking for a holiday must-have. Still some of the same signage and the escalators. But no people.

Debenhams has confirmed when it's shutting up shop for good.

Debenhams in Norwich just before it closed. - Credit: Denise Bradley

Empty retail units are fast becoming a more common sight; in Norwich alone, there is Debenhams, the huge old Primark/BHS unit as well as Argos and Top Shop. The Royal Arcade still cannot fill the huge former Jamie's Italian unit - vacated two years ago, before Covid even struck.

Debenhams in Norwich.

Debenhams in Norwich. This building is empty and up for sale or rent - but what's its future? - Credit: Archant

King's Lynn's got a gaping hole left by its Debenhams in 10-16, High Street and even the ever popular Holt is struggling to fill units in Appleyard and Feathers Yard as well as Bull Street.

Debenhams, King's Lynn, Norfolk

Debenhams in King's Lynn, now empty - Credit: Brown & Co

It is not difficult to see why. The rents alone for some of these buildings are huge. The former Argos shop in St Stephen's is £105,000 a year to rent with service charges and rates on top.

It is going to take a very confident retailer in this climate to sign up. What it means is they have more negotiation power but investor landlords bought these properties in the first place because of the returns. So what you get is a stalemate; and the units stand empty.

But isn't the panacea to retail woes the 'mixed scheme,' fast becoming the saviour of the big stores when they go bust?

Put in residential above, retail below, job done. But is putting in dozens of new homes right in the middle of a retail hub with no parking and little infrastructure really the answer?

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And who is going to buy or rent them? Lots of professionals on bicycles? Or Airbnb customers, much more transient occupiers more interested in where the best coffee bar is rather than whether they put out the recycling bin correctly.

Do other retailers, who are managing to survive in the high street, actually want to be next door to new housing developments? What is the effect on their business of this?

Nick Dunn, Brown & Co

Nick Dunn, Brown & Co - Credit: Brown & Co

Nick Dunn, a partner in commercial, Brown & Co, said: "There really are two trains of thought; one believes passionately that if you bring more life, more activity into the high street, in terms of residential or student accommodation, community use or leisure, that it has to be a good thing for the town or city centre.

"The foil to that is do the existing retailers see it as watering down and eroding the appeal of the high street?

"Everyone is trying really hard to repurpose, revitalise shops within centres - so you get a drop-in table tennis centre or an indoor skate park which is good on one level but if you're a jeweller, paying £90,000 a year, you may not want to be next to this.

"I picture in my mind pop-up shops, restaurants, all making the high street more vibrant but the harsh reality is that how long can that last when the landlords need to get £60,000 plus a year?

"If you own a centre or arcade and have retailers paying the going rate, it's really difficult to drop the rent for someone as your existing bedrock tenants will want a concession too."

It may be the way forward has to be landlords offering more flexible deals to tenants to fill units but softer deals mean shorter ones too. Landlords aren't prepared to commit long term to getting a lower rent and retailers aren't signing up like they used to for 10-15 years.

Guy Gowing, Arnolds Keys. Pic: Arnolds Keys

Guy Gowing, Arnolds Keys. - Credit: Arnolds Keys

Guy Gowing, managing partner, Arnolds Keys, said: "There is going to be some short-term pain. Landlords have got to be realistic and more flexible. The problem with a landlord like Legal and General, which owns the Royal Arcade, is they are more worried about its asset value and worried that dropping rents will affect that.

"But years ago no one wanted to live in the city centre; now it is popular and I think retail and resi can survive side by side."

Right now, there's too much uncertainty it seems, a lack of retail confidence because of Covid and a hesitance from landlords to negotiate on price.

For now it's a papering over the cracks - but long term, it seems the high street is going to have to really change.

The ghosts of business past: Big units standing empty

Orford House, Orford Place, Norwich; formerly occupied by Debenhams. Offers 111,723sqft.

old Primark, Norwich

The old Primark store, St Stephen's Street, Norwich, now empty - Credit: Roche

23-29 St Stephen's Street, Norwich; formerly occupied by the old Primark and before that, BHS. Offers 45,186sqft.

43-45 St Stephen's Street, Norwich; formerly Argos. Offers 8,863sqft. Available to rent for £105,000 a year plus service charge of £3,106 a year.

Jamie's Italian Norwich

The former Jamie's Italian restaurant in Norwich's Royal Arcade, empty since summer, 2019 - Credit: Archant library

21-24, Royal Arcade; formerly Jamie's Italian. Offers 9,991sqft.

Library, Guildhall Hill

The Library, Guildhall Hill, which closed as a restaurant in July 2019. - Credit: Archant

The Library, Guildhall; formerly a restaurant. Offers 5,482sqft. Available to rent for £60,000 a year.

21, Castle Street, Norwich; formerly Cath Kidston store. Offers 2,398sqft.

Debenhams, King's Lynn, Norfolk

Debenhams in King's Lynn, now empty - Credit: Brown & Co

10-16, High Street, King's Lynn; formerly Debenhams. Offers 46,791sqft.