As news circulated yesterday morning that House of Fraser had gone into administration, many customers told how devastated they would be if its Belfast store was to close.
However, the mood changed while shoppers waited on the store’s delayed opening at 11am yesterday, as news filtered through that the business – which has a store sitting in pride of place in Victoria Square – may well have been saved by a takeover.
Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley stepped in to take the reins shortly after the chain’s collapse was confirmed yesterday, and whilst it is unclear what will happen to its 50-plus UK stores in terms of closures or layoffs, Belfast is thought to be one of the chain’s better-performing sites.
The News Letter sought the reaction of consumers – some of whom had been in a panic to use gift cards and return goods – to the latest developments.
The news had prompted Liz Smith to make her annual visit to the Belfast store.
The Bangor woman explained: “I usually get a voucher as a Christmas present so I’m here once a year to spend my voucher. When I heard the news I thought I’m coming here today to spend the voucher in case it closes.”
With Liz was her sister-in-law Pat Campbell who was visiting from Manchester.
She was familiar with both the House of Fraser in Belfast and the store back home in Manchester: “There’s something about House of Fraser that is comforting. When I heard it had gone into administration I was really sad, worried that another business that takes up such a chunk of the high street is under threat.”
When she learned that Mike Ashley looks to have bought the business, she commented: “I’m delighted that someone is going to take it over. I would hate to see House of Fraser close.”
Julia Magowan, a 20-year-old from Hillsborough, said while she valued having House of Fraser in NI it was not somewhere she could afford to shop all the time.
She said: “I’d shop here once a month, maybe once every two months. It depends on whether I have money. Top Shop and Miss Selfridge would be the departments I’d usually visit.
“I think it’s an important store for a more mature audience. It’s not so much a store for younger people, but for people who earn a good income and can afford to shop there.
“I know my mum would be devastated if it shut. She lives by House of Fraser.”
Julie’s boyfriend Daryl Scott, 21, added: “I think younger people could cope if it closed, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be bad to see it go. It’s so important in Belfast.
“It’s not cheap but the quality is there. People will pay for quality.”
Wesley Sterling, 65, from Belfast, said: “I would be a regular shopper in House of Fraser, probably about three times a month.
“The quality really sets it apart and when the sales are on they do a very good sale.
“It would be a massive blow to lose House of Fraser. There aren’t too many stores in Belfast of this quality.
“I’ve noticed that in the past couple of months the footfall has improved.
“It’s one of the best shops in Belfast. I don’t want to think about it going and it looks as though that’s not going to happen.”
Bangor woman Alison Kevan, who worked in House of Fraser in Manchester until 2000, said: “I enjoyed my time working there. It would be devastating to lose a store like this in Belfast.
“I heard on the radio people discussing that they weren’t going the right way for their customers. I don’t agree, I think they have stayed true to their customer profile.
“I’d maybe shop here once a month. It’s the sort of place you go when you want quality or a designer sort of thing. There’s also a nice place to eat in it as well.”
Liz McCune was another customer who was worried about the fate of a gift voucher for the store.
She said: “I was coming into Belfast anyway and coincidentally I had a voucher for House of Fraser from Christmas which was in my bag.
“There had been rumblings of House of Fraser maybe being in trouble and I thought I should come round to see what’s happening.
“It’s lovely to have a store like this in Belfast but department stores face a difficult future given online competition.”
Her husband Roy commented: “The only other department store I can think of that’s remotely like it in Belfast is Debenham’s but it’s on a much smaller scale.”
He added: “The question now is if Mike Ashley has bought it, will he keep it the same? Could he try to introduce more bargain goods?”
Janis and Kenneth Chalker from Dorset were pleased to learn a buy-out could be on the cards.
Janis said: “You need to have shops like House of Fraser. It’s a luxury shop which we’d use now and again.
“Our nearest one is in Bournemouth city centre. There used to be a huge Marks and Spencer there as well, but it closed down in January. It’s now out of town.”
Kenneth said: “That’s the threat to cities like Bournemouth and Belfast – out of town shopping centres and online retail is killing (them).”