Belfast Telegraph

Majority of former Toys R Us stores in Northern Ireland are ‘close to being occupied’

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By Emma Deighan and Margaret Canning

Three of the four former Toys R Us shops in Northern Ireland are close to being occupied again in a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered retail sector, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The sites at Abbey Retail Park, CastleCourt Shopping Centre, Sprucefield Park in Lisburn and Crescent Link in Londonderry have been vacant since the firm went into administration earlier this year.

But the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that the Abbey Retail Park site is now under offer after going on the market for sale. It had been run within a separate Toys R Us property company and was being marketed for sale by UK property agency Morgan Williams.

It's understood the store is now under offer.

The other three stores are being let out by DIY giant B&Q, Wirefox and Lotus Group respectively.

Savills said they were in negotiations with a number of retailers for the Toys R Us premises in CastleCourt.

And Lotus Group last month confirmed that it had secured a letting of the former Toys R Us in Crescent Link to B&M Bargains. Meanwhile, Irish toy retailer Smyths is seeking to snap up eight former Toys R Us stores in the UK but has not responded to questions on whether it could acquire NI stores. B&Q had sublet a property at Sprucefield Retail Park to Toys R Us. News of lettings of the former Toys R Us stores comes during a testing time for the high street. Retailers including Carpetright and Mothercare are all considering closures.

Carpetright has said that it will close five of its nine stores in Northern Ireland, while Mothercare has refused to reveal how many of its five stores here will shut.

House of Fraser is expected to close some of its 59 department stores around the UK - putting its Belfast store, the anchor at Victoria Square Shopping Centre, at risk.

All three firms are expected to implement closures as they put their companies into a form of insolvency known as a company voluntary arrangement.

A CVA enables a company to ask creditors - including landlords - to vote on changes to borrowing terms in favour of the retailer, including rent reductions.

And four Maplin electrical stores in Northern Ireland are to close after it went into administration.

A spokesman for Mothercare told the Belfast Telegraph that it couldn't "comment on individual store closures" but "the comprehensive measures provide a renewed and stable financial structure for the business".

Andrew Webb, economist and director of economic advisory at Baker Tilly Mooney Moore, said "serious thought" would have to go into how vacant retail units are marketed for sale.

"This may require bold thinking in seeking and allowing for changes of use - might leisure, office or residential work better in some locations than retail?

"Obviously agents and owners will wish to get their properties let as soon as possible. This current retail malaise shows no sign of abating. Policy makers and planners should be deep in thought on what we want our places to be." Aodhan Connolly, chief executive of the NI Retail Consortium, said the prospect of vacancies following CVAs was "more evidence of the ongoing transformation in the retail industry".

"Retail is being re-shaped and re-formed by a very challenging operating environment which is clear to see under a growing number of CVAs," he said.

"But the high street is not dead, this is about reinvention retail not Armageddon retail.

"Investment in digital is rising significantly with new business models emerging and many traditional businesses restructuring the way they operate to meet changing consumer demand."

He added: "Policy makers must also adapt to provide a better planning and business taxation environment in which a 21st century retail industry can thrive."

Belfast Telegraph

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