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House of Fraser: A high-street jewel which has lost its shine

House of Fraser store in Chapelfield shopping centre.  Picture: Paul Hewitt

House of Fraser store in Chapelfield shopping centre. Picture: Paul Hewitt

The House of Fraser name was once a jewel of high streets across the country – a department store steeped in history, which typified style and variety.

House of Fraser before its opening, September 2005. Picture:Antony KellyHouse of Fraser before its opening, September 2005. Picture:Antony Kelly

But like so many before it – including Woolworths, Toys R Us and, most recently, Poundworld – it has fallen victim to the rise in discount stores and the shift in consumer habits from physical purchase to online shopping.

The future once looked so bright. A series of marquee acquisitions over a 50-year period in the middle of the 20th century saw the company’s portfolio blossom, offering customers an everything-under-one-roof shopping experience that allowed people to browse for wedding gifts, homeware, beauty products and designer clothes, all within the same four walls.

It was a far cry from its humble beginnings as a small drapery shop in Glasgow in 1849, the brainchild of farmer’s son Hugh Fraser and small business owner James Arthur.

The name Arthur & Fraser was born, and could be found on the corner of Argyle Street and Buchanan Street in the Scottish city.

House of Fraser before its opening, September 2005. Picture:Antony KellyHouse of Fraser before its opening, September 2005. Picture:Antony Kelly

A century later, and after the wholesale business splintered from the retail side, the firm had grown to become a national chain known as House of Fraser.

It would go on to acquire numerous other businesses as its stores emerged bruised and bloodied but emboldened from the Second World War, from clothes broker Brown Muff & Co in Yorkshire to Dingles drapery shop in Plymouth.

Harrods, too, would become part of the House of Fraser family in the late 1950s. Then, in 1985, the company was bought by Egyptian-born tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed and its profile soared further.

But trouble was afoot.

House of Fraser before its opening, September 2005. Picture: Antony KellyHouse of Fraser before its opening, September 2005. Picture: Antony Kelly

By January 1997, new chief executive John Coleman delivered on his promise to sell three stores – with the loss of 1,000 jobs – having been hit by a slump in the womenswear market and “poor buying policies”.

A slight increase in sales the following year was not enough to drag the company into the black, and House of Fraser would go on to mortgage some retail estates to raise money for store revamps.

A further rise in like-for-like sales at the turn of the millennium gave cause for optimism, new store openings and the creation of hundreds of new jobs.

It would go on to acquire more regional chains, such as Jenners and Beatties, but the company’s wheels had started to come off by the time it was bought by Chinese conglomerate Sanpower Group for nearly £500m in 2014.

House of Fraser store in the Chapelfield shopping centre.  Picture: Paul HewittHouse of Fraser store in the Chapelfield shopping centre. Picture: Paul Hewitt

The rise of discount stores such as Primark and Poundland, and the growth of internet shopping through sites such as Amazon, had already been credited as a contributory factor for hastening the demise of several high street staples.

Finally, after signalling that its future looked bleak, House of Fraser announced on Friday that it had fallen into administration, endangering the future of 17,000 staff – before Sports Direct swiftly announced that it had snapped up the company and its assets.

As of June, the group had 59 locations across the UK and Ireland.

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