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Collapse of UK retail giants leaves large hole in heart of property sector

Of all the tough days the U.K. retail sector has had to endure in recent years, perhaps none will prove as significant as Dec. 1.

Shortly after the country woke up to news that retail giant Arcadia Group Ltd. had fallen into administration — a form of insolvency that protects it from creditors — came an announcement that, after 242 years in business, department store chain Debenhams PLC is to be liquidated following the collapse of rescue talks.

Beyond the likely loss of up to 25,000 jobs, the businesses’ failures will leave a massive hole in the U.K.'s retail property landscape. Debenhams and Arcadia — owner of brands such as Topshop, Burton and Miss Selfridge — have a combined store footprint of 16.6 million square feet, according to Estate Gazette's Radius Data Exchange, with the former accounting for more than 11 million square feet of that total.

"These two businesses failing at the same time is really a massive moment in retail history," Richard Hyman, an independent retail analyst who has advised some of the U.K.'s largest retailers and retail landlords, said in an interview. "And the fact that it has been totally predictable and totally inevitable doesn't lessen its magnitude."

No surprise

Landlords have had ample warning of the retailers' demise. Both companies entered an insolvency process known as a Company Voluntary Arrangement in 2019 — Debenhams after three profit warnings and the first of two administrations — which resulted in substantial reductions to their rent bills. The widespread use of the process in recent years has proven controversial due to the disproportionate burden it is perceived to place on landlords compared to other creditors.

The retailers' failures will cause more concern for some landlords than others. Among listed U.K. landlords, Capital & Regional PLC and British Land Co. PLC have the greatest exposure to the closure of Debenham's 124 department stores and prospective closure of Arcadia's more than 400 outlets, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data.

Capital & Regional reported Debenhams among its top tenants as of June 30, with three of the retailer's stores comprising 2.38% of the landlord's contracted rent. British Land reported Debenhams as a top tenant in its half-year report at the end of March, but not in its full-year report at the end of September. It is unclear whether this was due to store closures or a reduction in rental income from the retailer. British Land was unable to confirm in time for publication.

Similarly, Hammerson PLC reported Debenhams as a top tenant in its 2019 full-year report ending Dec. 31, but not in its 2020 half-year report as of June 30. The company told S&P Global Market Intelligence that the change was due to it taking back space from the retailer at a number of its properties. Hammerson currently has two stores let to Debenhams covering 330,000 square feet at the Bullring Shopping Centre in Birmingham and the Silverburn Shopping Centre in Glasgow.

British Land reported Arcadia among its top retail tenants as of Sept. 30, making up 1.8% of its total retail rent, S&P data showed.

An analysis of listed retail landlord exposure to Arcadia by Colm Lauder, real estate equity analyst at stockbroker Goodbody, found that British Land has around 20 stores let to the retailer, Hammerson has 15, Landsec has 10, NewRiver REIT has four and Capital & Regional has two.

Some of Arcadia's better-performing brands and stores are expected to be saved by interested buyers.

Permanent scars

Still, the impact on the U.K. retail property sector is expected to be considerable, Benjamin Bouchet, analyst at Moody's Investors Service's structured finance group said in an emailed statement. "Debenhams and Arcadia's collapse will not only permanently scar secondary properties but increase vacancy rates in prime properties over the short term," he said. "We expect prime quality high streets, shopping centers and retail parks will be more resilient with a faster footfall recovery and are more likely to gain from the drive to omni-channel retailing."

Debenhams and Arcadia's collapse comes as the U.K. retail sector experiences one its most difficult ever years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of "non-essential" retail during two national lockdowns in the spring and November as the government sought to control the spread of the virus. The sector was already struggling prior to the pandemic with the rapid growth of ecommerce in the U.K.

The turmoil in the sector has led to 52 medium or large non-food retailers going into administration or liquidation in 2020, according to the Centre for Retail Research. It is the highest number of major retailer failures since 2012 when 54 went bust. In total, 4,726 stores have been affected by the failures, the largest number since 2009.

Landlords face a further plunge in rents and property valuations as a result. In a report on the U.K. retail property market for the first half of 2020, real estate services firm CBRE said that it could only estimate rather than calculate a 10% drop in rents across the whole of the U.K. during the period "due to the sheer lack of transactions, but also the complexity of the leasing terms for those that have completed."

Recent data on retail property valuations is equally grim. Landsec, whose retail assets make up more than a quarter of its £11.8 billion property portfolio, reported a plunge in valuations across its retail portfolio in the six months to Sept. 30. The value of its London-based retail assets fell by 16.7%; regional retail assets fell by 16.4%; regional shopping centers and shops fell by 20.4% and outlets by 8.8%.

Despite the prospect of vaccines significantly reducing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming year, the retail sector should expect much more pain to come, said Hyman. "Arcadia and Debenhams are huge businesses to go and there won't be many others of a similar size," he said. "But I can say with total certainty that there will be many, many more. We're much closer to the beginning of this than we are to the end."