The future of the House of Fraser department store in Belfast city centre came sharply into focus yesterday after its new owner announced that the sale of the chain was conditional on closures.
The owner of Hamleys has confirmed it is to take majority ownership of the struggling department store chain, and will oversee a sweeping store closure programme.
C.banner, the Chinese retailer behind Hamleys, said it will buy a 51% stake in House of Fraser from its parent Nanjing Cenbest.
However, the sale is conditional on House of Fraser shutting stores.
A concession of Hamleys toy store had operated from the top floor at House of Fraser's Belfast store when it opened in 2008, but it closed just a year later despite doing "fantastically well".
At the time Hamleys decided to withdraw from all House of Fraser stores.
House of Fraser's troubles came to the fore in January after it suffered a drop in sales over Christmas and started talking to landlords about reducing the size of its property portfolio. KPMG has been drafted in to advise the firm on its restructuring proposal, with the terms of the plan likely to be finalised at the beginning of June.
The 59-strong chain will put forward a restructuring plan known as a company voluntary arrangement (CVA), which will require the approval of landlords and bondholders.
Frank Slevin, chairman of House of Fraser, said C.banner's acquisition was "a step to securing House of Fraser's long-term future".
"C.banner's investment is a vote of confidence in our prospects," he added.
"We know that if we are to deliver a sustainable, long-term business, then we need to make difficult decisions about our under-performing legacy stores.
"I am all too aware that this creates uncertainty for my colleagues in the business and so we will be transparent with them throughout the process."
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "It is very concerning to hear that House of Fraser is planning to close a number of stores.
"Given the huge importance of the Belfast store to both Victoria Square and the city centre economy as a whole, as a major footfall driver, I hope that it will continue to remain open.
"These are challenging times for the retail sector given that in the last few months we have seen Carpetright, Maplin and Toys R Us all closing stores."
House of Fraser is a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Sanpower, chaired by Yuan Yafei.
Mr Yuan has voiced his commitment to House of Fraser, which has 6,000 employees and 11,500 concession staff, and has been pumping millions of pounds into the retailer.
Several household names have pursued CVAs so far this year in a bid to save costs, including New Look, Carpetright and burger chain Byron.