Browns department store has traded from pride of place on Eastgate Street in the northern English city of Chester since 1791, selling fashion, perfumes and afternoon tea to locals and tourists visiting the historic centre.
But the future of the imposing columned building is in doubt as its owner, British department store Debenhams, becomes the latest retailer to enter administration, hamstrung by the pandemic and changing shopping habits.
“It’s heart-breaking," said local resident Sue Astbury, 53, who manages a chain of charity shops in the region.
Although she remembers visiting Browns as a child and the adventure of wandering around the nooks and crannies of the characterful store, she says she rarely goes shopping in Chester because of the traffic and the cost of parking.
“I do a vast amount of my shopping online because you don’t have to worry about parking and you can try on things in your own time," she said.
Shoppers have shunned physical stores to avoid catching COVID-19, even outside of official lockdowns, and accelerated a shift to online shopping that was underway before the pandemic.
The effects are being felt throughout Britain’s high streets - main shopping drags where people bought everything from groceries to clothes. Many had been on the decline for decades even before the pandemic, struggling to adapt to modern times.
A record increase in the number of shuttered shops as Britain’s second wave of virus infections got underway has left streets and shopping centres pockmarked with empty units.
British retail job losses will rise about 65% to 235,704 this year versus last, the Centre for Retail Research predicts. About 25,000 jobs are at risk from the collapse of Debenhams and fashion retailer Arcadia Group combined - more than double the number employed on the country’s fishing fleets.
‘A TREASURE TROVE’
Browns of Chester, known as the “Harrods of the North" after the luxury London department store, was a must-visit for those visiting the city with its chandeliers, creaking floorboards and maze-like interior. Debenhams took it over in 1976.
“I remember my mum holding my hand tightly as we went around, especially when it was busy, as it was like a maze," said Samantha Payne, a 45-year-old projects administrator who now lives in nearby Runcorn.
“It was just so posh - a treasure trove of so many nice things, from the perfume and jewellery counters on the ground floor to the bridal wear upstairs," added Payne, who bought a beige silk bridesmaid dress there 20 years ago.
On a recent morning, the store was open but big “Store Closing" and “Everything Must Go" signs hung in its windows.
Retail investor Mike Ashley is in last-minute talks to buy Debenhams from administrators but has said there is no certainty that any transaction will take place.
Near Browns is the Grosvenor Shopping Centre with Arcadia Group stores including menswear chains Burton and Topman and women’s fashion stores Dorothy Perkins and Topshop. Arcadia collapsed into administration in November.
Local businesses worry that the closure of these shops - especially the landmark Browns - will mean even fewer people making the trip into the city centre. Parking at the Grosvenor Shopping Centre costs 7.80 pounds ($10.40) for three hours.
FESTOONED WITH LIGHTS
“I am concerned for the city centre," says Ann Faulkner of The Cheese Shop, which has operated out of its small premises with bright blue and white striped awning for nearly 40 years.
On a recent morning, the shop was doing brisk trade ahead of Christmas even with just two customers allowed inside the shop at a time. The phone constantly rang with people placing orders.
“Visitors like going to those old-fashioned department stores," she added, with reference to Chester’s popularity as a weekend-break destination.
Two lockdowns in England and a shortened Christmas trading period have piled pressure on retailers as they enter the crucial holiday season. In England, non-essential shops were allowed to reopen on Dec. 2 for the first time in four weeks.
In Chester, streets festooned with lights were busy with masked Christmas shoppers. Although shopper traffic in England surged 150% on Dec. 2 from the previous week as shops re-opened, it was still down over a quarter from last year.
Britons were already among the biggest online shoppers in the world pre-COVID-19. UK e-commerce has accelerated this year, and the habits built up over the pandemic are expected to stick.
Online shopping has grown 52.8% since February, according to the latest data from the Office of National Statistics.
In Chester, The Cheese Shop spent around 3,000 pounds to set up an online store in September.
“I don’t think we could have survived this Christmas without the online option," she said.