Belfast Telegraph

After 186 years, Europe's oldest department store is no more

By Margaret Canning

Derry department store Austins - the oldest in Europe - has closed its doors for the last time with the loss of 53 jobs.

The retailer in the city's Diamond was founded in 1830 and stood firm through two World Wars and the Troubles.

But liquidators have now been appointed to the business by trading company Hassonzender, which bought Austins two years ago.

City Hotel Group, which owns the building, said it had no notice of the appointment of liquidators.

Ronan Duffy of insolvency firm McCambridge Duffy said it was a "sad day" for the city.

The firm will be meeting staff this week to discuss redundancy.

Mr Duffy said: "There was a meeting first thing addressed by management and myself and, as you can imagine, it was fairly emotional."

A plaque on the building commemorates founding father Thomas Austin - though the Austins sold on the business in 1976.

Staff at the store turned up to work as usual yesterday to be told the devastating news, and looked on as stock was shifted outside.

It's one of the last elegant independent department stores in Northern Ireland, which in their heyday attracted hordes of well-heeled shoppers.

Foyle DUP MLA Gary Middleton said it was "part of the fabric of Londonderry". "The business has served generations of people in the city and beyond," he added.

Londonderry Chamber of Commerce chief executive Sinead McLaughlin said it was "terribly sad news", but added the problems facing independent department stores were not unique to Derry.

"It is a sector that has struggled to survive modern retailing trends," she pointed out.

But she said that city and town centres needed protection.

"Action is essential to ensure that it survives and thrives, despite modern retailing challenges such as the internet and out of town shopping centres," she added.

Glyn Roberts, chief exectutive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, said Austins had been a "destination retailer" and its closure would diminish footfall for the nearby traders. "Our thoughts are with the 53 Austins staff and their families at this difficult time," said Mr Roberts.

Many of the staff had worked there for decades, and said the store had always had a warm, family atmosphere.

Toni McNally, who worked in Austins for 33 years, told UTV Live: "It was the best place to work in. Our colleagues and bosses were great."

Donald McFetridge, retail analyst at Ulster University, said Austins was "one of the last bastions" of independent, family-run department stores in the province.

"Ever since the Troubles we have seen a gradual decline in this type of store. For example, Belfast had Bank Buildings, Robinson & Cleaver and Brands and Norman, and Derry had Austins," he said.

He added the store had enjoyed a "formidable reputation" in the north west but that changing consumer habits had hastened its demise.

"Discerning consumers are now seeking big-name retailers which generate brand recognition and status," he explained.

"Sadly, the days of the independently-owned and run department store are numbered and Austins has become the latest casualty.

Range, price point and brand cachet all matter more than ever for 21st century consumers."

Belfast Telegraph