'Big blow' to staff and city as Austins department store closes its doors
One of Europe's oldest department stores has closed.
Fifty-three staff lost their jobs at Austins Department Store in Londonderry, which has been open for almost two centuries.
Austins predated Harrods of London by 15 years and Macy's of New York by 25 years. It sold fashion and gifts.
Sinead McLaughlin, chief executive of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, said: "At one stage it was the city centre and very much the heart of people's purchasing and that has changed."
The landmark business opened in 1830, the cusp of the Victorian era, when Thomas Austin established a drapery shop in the corner of the Diamond.
It blossomed in an age of prosperity to include household names and survived the Troubles which tore the heart out of the city.
A roof-top restaurant and vendors of homeware and cutlery operated from the building.
The company posted significant losses in recent years amid fierce competition from out-of-town and online retailers.
Ms McLaughlin added: "It has had a number of very difficult trading years. The city centre has rejigged itself but it has had challenging times with competition from the multinationals."
She said workers were just told the news this morning and it had come as a shock. The store had been in receivership but had been trying to remodel itself.
"I think it is now incumbent upon all the city stakeholders to look at the viability of our city centre. Traditional retailing is being challenged between out-of-town centres, the euro and online trading.
"Austins has been at the heart of this city, the historic centre, and is a landmark building. There is a vacuum that we need to consider how to fill."
DUP Assembly member Gary Middleton said workers were devastated after being called to a meeting first thing this morning.
"It is a big blow. Those 53 staff are unemployed. It is devastating right across the city.
"It is a real loss to the city."
He said Austins had struggled since the 2008 recession.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the staff should be supported.
"A struggling economy will always result in a struggling retail sector. Derry's economy is struggling and the sudden closure of Austins is testament to that.
"The failure of the Executive to properly invest in the West has left a legacy of economic stagnation and the impact of this has been felt by the staff of Austins today."